Gov. Brian Kemp’s decision to begin a phased “reopening” of Georgia this week amid the coronavirus pandemic will be a tenure-defining decision that is sure to impact his political future. If the decision backfires and we see another spike in cases and deaths and more resulting economic injury, it could ultimately cost him re-election in 2022.

When teed up with a question about the weight of his decision during a press conference Monday, Kemp had a passionate response and delivered it with all the folksiness of a skilled politician.

“I don’t give a damn about politics right now,” Kemp said. “We’re talking about somebody that has put their whole life into building a business, that has people they love and work with every single day working in many of these places, that are at home, going broke, worried about whether they can feed their children, make the mortgage payment.”

Most of us can relate to this sentiment. The state’s economy has been decimated by this pandemic. The human suffering has been greater and can be measured in more ways than one. We do need to get back going at some point.

But the fact remains: Numerous health professionals and experts have warned that “going back” too soon would endanger more people, especially when — as the governor himself has acknowledged — a significant number of people can transmit COVID-19 without ever showing symptoms of it.

So by all means, let's go to the bowling alley. 

Kemp may think this is leadership in a no-win situation, but over the course of a week he has sent mixed messages to Georgians at a pivotal time. And we as a state may be about to undermine a great deal of the progress we've made in this battle.

On April 13, Kemp said at a press conference he would prioritize ramping up the state’s testing capacity and making sure hospitals were equipped to handle a surge of patients over easing up on restrictions. A week later, he announced that many of the businesses that his statewide shelter-in-place order closed would begin reopening. 

But that shelter-in-place order? It remains in effect through April 30. Also, Kemp urged the elderly and “medically fragile” in our state to remain home through May 13, when the statewide public emergency declaration is set to expire. You would be more than justified in asking, “What the hell is going on here?”

One turning point in the governor’s calculus seems to have been rosier projections that the state has already reached its peak with the virus. The latest projections from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation — whose model is most often-cited by state officials — indicate that Georgia saw its peak in daily deaths April 7 and the virus placed the heaviest demand on the state’s hospital resources April 15, much earlier than the previous projections of early May. The latest model forecasts that more than 1,300 Georgians will eventually die from COVID-19, but that is less than half of the original projection.

This improved outlook is a sign that “social distancing” measures in Georgia have been working and that the governor, for all the criticism he faced for waiting too long, was right to eventually issue a statewide order that put to bed a confusing mix of local ordinances around the state. Given the latest data, we should all be sharing in the optimism that our sacrifices are working and that we are turning a corner.

But Kemp seems to be ignoring the most important caveat in the latest IHME projections: they assume strong social distancing measures and other restrictions will remain in place through May and into June. In effect, we’re taking off the parachutes before we land.

Kemp insisted Monday that his orders don’t mean things will immediately go back to “business as usual,” noting that social distancing requirements and other health and sanitization standards will have to be adhered to for these businesses to reopen.

But who will enforce them? The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported last week that state enforcement against violations of the shelter-in-place order had been sparse. Is there any reason to believe things will be different with these relaxed restrictions? Most local departments don’t have the resources to widely enforce them while being able to perform the rest of their duties effectively. And because this easing-up applies statewide, he's effectively tied the hands of local governments that are seeing more cases in their jurisdiction and might need to be more vigilant.

Kemp says that most business owners have the common sense to self-police, but how practical can social distancing be in some of these establishments? And we haven’t even gotten to the flocks of people who are restless from being cooped up at home and will be lining up at the doors ready for these places to open.

All of this feels like an unnecessary and monumental risk and is a head-spinning turnaround a week after the governor said Georgians shouldn’t let up and keep “hunkering down.” That’s a point that Carol Burrell, the president and CEO of Northeast Georgia Health System, which oversees Northeast Georgia Medical Center Barrow and three other hospitals, made Monday in a system news release. Health system officials have said for more than a week now that, despite statewide projections, their modeling suggests the virus’ peak has still yet to arrive in northeast Georgia.

“Our physician leaders, clinical experts and objective data all tell us now is not the time to relax," Burrell said. "Rather, now is the time to continue to take every precaution we can. We know people are tired of staying home, but this is about saving as many lives as possible.”

Kemp and his allies on Monday defended the eased restrictions as a “measured” balance between addressing economic troubles and public health concerns. But one has to wonder if certain people haven’t been in his ear.

President Trump has consistently called for a quick reopening (despite this week announcing a temporary suspension of immigration to the U.S.) and often contradicts the statements of his administration’s own public health experts and their warnings about the dangers of reopening too soon. Other conservative leaders and right-wing cable TV hosts have followed suit and, along with the president, encouraged these bizarre “liberate” protests that have popped up around the country in recent days. It’s also worth noting Kemp made the decision to reopen after holding conference calls with five Southeastern governors, all of them Republicans. Tellingly absent from these discussions was the Democratic governor in North Carolina.

Kemp has touted a recent boost in the state’s testing capacity as a reason to begin lifting restrictions and says the state is following the Trump administration’s three-phase approach to reopening. And he and Kathleen Toomey, the state’s public health commissioner, say Georgia has met the benchmarks to start the process of easing up — adequate testing and hospital capacity and contact-tracing capability.

But that is up for debate as even state officials, including Kemp, have acknowledged that Georgia, for all of its recent progress, continues to lag behind most of the country in testing capacity. The state has ranked around 45th in testing per capita. And even with Georgia National Guard Adjutant General Tom Carden’s statement that the ranking is actually closer to 28th when taking into account the acceleration of testing, we’re nowhere near being able to understand the true footprint of COVID-19 in Georgia.

With all of that said, the decision has been made and the reopening is now underway. The coming days and weeks will tell us if we were adequately prepared as a state for it. Let’s hope we don’t have to learn a very painful lesson like several places in America did during the 1918 “Spanish Flu” pandemic when they lifted restrictions too soon.

Kemp says he doesn’t care about the politics of it all, but he has made the decision to operate in line with many other Trump-friendly governors. At the same time, he should also realize he doesn’t have the same captivating grip on his base that the president enjoys. And if things go sideways in Georgia as a result of his decisions, there won’t be anyone for him to scapegoat.

He’ll wear the consequences.

Scott Thompson is editor of The Barrow News-Journal. He can be reached at sthompson@barrownewsjournal.com.

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