ATLANTA – Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp will allow his statewide shelter-in-place order to expire at midnight Thursday but is extending his emergency powers to June 12 and telling the elderly and medically fragile to stay at home until then.
The first-term Republican governor had already carved sizable loopholes in his order that applied to all 10 million Georgians and signaled it would end when he allowed some businesses to reopen last week and Monday. Social distancing requirements and bans on large gatherings remain in place.
Kemp told The Associated Press in a Thursday interview that he’s been pleased with how his effort to reopen some businesses — among the most aggressive in the nation — has gone in the face of a continuing COVID-19 pandemic that has sickened 26,000 people in the state and killed more than 1,100.
“Georgian are smart, they’re entrepreneurs, and they’re innovators, and many of them had figured out how to deal with this in a safe way,” Kemp said. “So I’ve been very pleased.”
Last week, Kemp allowed elective medical procedures to resume, and barbers, hair stylists, massage therapists, tattoo artists and bowling alleys to go back to work beginning Friday. Restaurants were allowed to begin serving diners on-site again on Monday. They and other businesses are operating under restrictions meant to retard virus transmission through May 13. But Kemp’s moves drew sharp criticism from within the state and nationwide, including multiple public rebukes from President Donald Trump.
“Georgians that don’t feel comfortable getting out — especially if they have these medical conditions — they don’t need to do that,” Kemp said Thursday. “But if people want to, then I believe they ought to have the opportunity to do that. And that’s all I did, was give people that opportunity. ”
Kemp cited the state’s successful effort to increase hospital bed capacity and acquire more ventilators as among the indicators he looked at when deciding to reopen, saying the stay-at-home measure was meant to keep hospitals from being overwhelmed by sick patients. But critics have said that’s not enough.
“Go bowling, and if you get sick I have a bed for you,” is how Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, an outspoken critic of reopening, characterized Kemp’s focus on hospital capacity in multiple interviews Monday.
Even though Georgia had already allowed people to go bowling and eat at restaurants, there was still reason for Kemp to extend his shelter-at-home order for everyone in the state, said Dr. Harry J. Heiman, professor of public health at Georgia State University.
“If the message from our governor is we no longer need to shelter in place, that gives many citizens the false sense that it’s safer to go outside than it was a month ago,” Heiman said. “And that’s very concerning and frightening to me.”
Kemp and Georgia Public Health Commissioner Kathleen Toomey have argued that Georgia is meeting the requirements set by the Trump administration for states to reopen. A number of measures on infection rates and testing have shown improvement in recent days, but many outside public health experts have said the numbers hadn’t shown definitive improvement when Kemp acted.
The state has seen improvement in the number of tests it’s administering, cited as a key measure to ensure no widespread reservoirs of undetected infection exist. Toomey said the state is trying to reach the 200,000 test mark rapidly, having performed about 150,000 as of Thursday.
Another key measure to combat infection is tracking down who has been in contact with infected people and telling them to quarantine, a practice called contact tracing. Toomey said Georgia has 400 public health employees doing contact tracing and has trained 200 medical and public health students, but is waiting for them to go through a background check. She said the state is trying to hire more people to reach 1,000.
Toomey said the state this week also has been trying out a computer application in some counties that is meant to use cellphone data to track the spread of infection and could soon roll it out statewide.