Georgia’s fervently pro-Trump governor’s early breakout from a coronavirus shutdown is stirring fears of a deadly new wave of infections and warnings that he is derelict in his duty and acting on political motives.
Republican Gov. Brian Kemp plans to open nail salons, massage therapists, bowling allies and gyms from Friday. Restaurants and movie theaters come back on line statewide next Monday.
The move, which is even more aggressive than President Donald Trump’s optimistic call for a May 1 reopening, came after a week in which total US pandemic deaths doubled to more than 42,000. There is also no genuine sign that the Peach State’s duel with the virus is anywhere near over. Kemp acted as fellow southern states South Carolina and Tennessee also announced plans to ease some social distancing measures.
The reopening decision is not just a huge risk for Kemp but the most aggressive leap by a US political leader to the reopening side of the conundrum that balances vicious job losses against shutdowns meant to suppress the virus as quickly as possible.
It’s a wager with the health and ultimately the lives of many Georgia citizens and potentially the frontline medical workers who will treat newly infected patients that Kemp admitted will catch the disease.
It also appears to flout the logic of epidemiology and warnings by the top government infectious diseases specialist Dr. Anthony Fauci, who was absent from the White House briefing Monday, that “there is still a long way to go” in battling the pandemic.
There is so far no vaccine or proven therapy for coronavirus, which can cause serious and fatal respiratory collapses in some patients, especially those who are elderly or have comprised immune systems. That’s why aggressive social distancing is the only way to check the pathogen’s spread.
Kemp’s berth on the Trump train and the President’s repeated agitating for the national economy to open quickly raises questions about whether Georgia’s move is politically motivated.
It raises the prospect that Trump’s hoped-for “beautiful puzzle” of state-by-state economic reopening could proceed on partisan rather than public health grounds.
Some states such as New York, Massachusetts and Michigan, which have Democratic governors, are currently approaching or just past peak infections. But there is no guarantee that more rural, Republican states will not become hotspots in future. And Kemp’s move will also begin to fracture the remarkable national respect for social distancing that has alleviated some fears of ventilator shortages and dangerously overcrowded hospitals.
Opening comes against fraught political backdrop
Kemp laid his bet amid a cacophony of calls by opinion hosts on Fox News and other networks for a reopening of the economy that is vital to Trump’s hopes of winning a second term.
Meanwhile, Trump has been offering encouragement to conservative activists who staged a series of protests across the country against stay-at-home requirements that they say infringe on basic American freedoms. State governors are beginning to worry that the protests could act as petri dishes for the virus to widen its spread.
Kemp’s decision also appears to fly in the face of evidence from foreign states and territories such as Singapore and Hong Kong, and the city of Harbin in China, which saw coronavirus infections quickly erupt after social distancing restrictions were lifted or when residents returned from abroad.
Yet if Georgia manages to stave off a disaster, the state could become a blueprint for other areas that choose to live with a certain level of infections – and by extension, deaths – in order to alleviate the devastating toll on the economy that has shed more than 20 million jobs in a month.
If Kemp is forced to reintroduce social distancing measures though, his failure could deal a devastating blow to national reopening hopes and the desire of every American who is confined to their homes to a way out of lockdown misery.
“I think this is the right approach at the right time. It’s not just throwing the keys back to these business owners,” Kemp said, but admitted his move could cause more infections.
“We’re probably going to have to see our cases continue to go up, but we’re a lot better prepared for that now than we were over a month ago,” he said, claiming Georgia had sufficient hospital beds, testing and knowledge to control the virus.
But Van Johnson, Savannah’s Democratic mayor, told CNN’s Erin Burnett that the decision “blows our minds.”
“I am beyond disturbed. In my mind, it’s reckless. Our reality here in Savannah is our numbers are still going up,” Johnson said.
Stacey Abrams, who lost to Kemp in a controversial 2018 gubernatorial election and is a possible Democratic vice presidential pick, slammed the reopening as “dangerously incompetent” on Twitter.
Former George W. Bush administration adviser and renowned cardiologist Dr. Jonathan Reiner warned that Kemp’s decision was “a dereliction of duty … this crisis has not abated in that state.”
Reiner said that the positivity rate of those tested in Georgia was an “enormous 23%.” In Germany, which has had a widespread testing program and began a cautious reopening of small shops and business Monday, the positivity rate of a higher per capital testing level is 7%.
“In Georgia, the virus is still very, very active and this behavior is frankly reckless,” he said on CNN.
Dr. Deborah Birx, who appeared beside Trump at the White House, declined to criticize Kemp directly, adding that each governor needed to assess their state’s readiness.
“We have asked every governor to follow the guidelines,” Birx said.
In its rather vague guidelines, the White House plan calls for a downward trajectory of influenza-like illnesses reported within a 14-day period before incremental opening can begin.
But Georgia has not had a sustained downward trend over the last two weeks.
There were more than 5,700 new coronavirus cases last week. The number was 6% down on the week that ended April 12, when 6,000 cases were added, but it’s still higher than the week that ended April 5, when fewer than 3,800 new cases were reported, according to figures collected by Johns Hopkins University and CNN.
Experts also say that the state’s comparatively low testing rate means there may be many cases that are not detected.
Momentum toward reopening was swelled by South Carolina, which opened some stores at limited capacity on Monday. Tennessee, which has had 152 confirmed deaths and 7,238 cases, announced that the vast majority of businesses would open on May 1. The city of Jacksonville, Florida, reopened beaches.
Trump slams Maryland’s GOP governor
An upbeat Trump on Monday dismissed claims from multiple governors that the rate of testing in the United States is insufficient to permit even lesser-hit states to begin easing restrictions.
Vice President Mike Pence told governors on a call on Monday about multiple sites and laboratories in their states that could conduct testing that the White House suggested the local authorities had not identified.
Medical professionals and governors say that there still is not sufficient testing even to diagnose people exhibiting symptoms of the illness. Some areas have testing kits but not the swabs or reagents needed to diagnose patients.
One governor, Republican Larry Hogan of Maryland, resorted to doing a deal with South Korea, brokered by his wife who is a native of the East Asian country, to bring in half a million testing kits.
Trump lashed out at Hogan, claiming there were already sufficient testing sites in his state.
“I don’t think he needed to go to South Korea. I think he needed to get a little knowledge – would’ve been helpful,” Trump said.
The White House has consistently predicted that testing is about to reach world-beating levels. But only just over 4 million tests have been conducted since early March. Public health experts and think tanks say there may be a need for millions of tests a day to permit the economy to be opened and new virus infections to be detected, traced to their source and for all the potential patients exposed to be isolated.
The President dismissed the idea that mass testing was necessary without giving any scientific or epidemiological justification.
“Not everybody believes we should do so much testing,” Trump said. The President also recommitted himself to a prediction based on adjusted models used by the White House that the total number of US deaths could number around 60,000 through August.
Given the fast rising crest of fatalities, that figure now seems far too optimistic.
CNN’s Ethan Cohen contributed to this story.