Gov. Brian Kemp has quietly begun planning to reopen Georgia for business, weeks before the expected peak of the coronavirus pandemic.
Aides to the governor acknowledged Thursday that Kemp has consulted with Georgia business and political leaders about how soon he should ease restrictions that have devastated the state’s economy while attempting to curb the virus’ spread.
These discussions are in their early stages, the aides said. But they reflect Kemp’s eagerness to move past a public health crisis that has, so far, left hundreds of Georgians dead and thousands more sickened.
In a statement released by his office late Thursday, Kemp said Georgia will follow federal guidelines and collaborate with health and emergency management officials to “develop a plan for safely returning to more routine operations.”
“In the coming days,” the statement quoted Kemp as saying, “I will outline how Georgia will move forward. Many Georgians are ready to get back to work, and the fundamentals of our economy remain strong. I am confident that we will successfully rebound from this public health emergency.”
Kemp’s tentative moves toward ending the state’s lockdown worry public health experts. They warn that acting too soon could undermine efforts to combat the virus and possibly lead to a stronger outbreak.
But Kemp’s deliberations coincide with new guidance for the nation’s governors from the White House. Late Thursday, President Donald Trump urged governors to relax social-distancing rules in stages, on a timetable to be determined by such factors as the availability of testing for the coronavirus.
“You’re going to call your own shots,” Trump told the governors in a conference call, according to The Associated Press. “We’re going to be standing alongside of you.”
It was a sharp reversal from earlier in the week, when Trump asserted, “The president of the United States calls the shots.”
Kemp had been reluctant to speak publicly about when he might lift an executive order that directed Georgians to shelter at home and limited noncritical business activities. The order is scheduled to expire April 30.
On Thursday, however, Kemp told reporters he thinks “there’s ways we can start easing back into the economy.”
“Because when that happens, we’re going to have new cases pop up,” he said while touring a temporary hospital for coronavirus patients at the Georgia World Congress Center in downtown Atlanta. “We’re going to have a little bit more demand. We’ve just got to be comfortable we can handle that demand, and that’s what we’re working on right now.”
Kemp is attempting to strike a balance between the economy and public health amid bad news on both fronts.
Georgia’s unemployment rate soared from 3.1% in February to 4.2% in March, the sharpest one-month increase on record, the state Department of Labor announced Thursday. Also on Thursday, researchers at Georgia State University predicted the coronavirus shutdown could cost state and local governments as much as $1.27 billion in sales tax revenue.
Meanwhile, the number of confirmed coronavirus cases and deaths continued to climb. As of late Thursday, 16,368 Georgians had tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, versus 15,260 confirmed cases reported late Wednesday.
Authorities now attribute 617 deaths to the virus — 41 more than on Wednesday.
COMPLETE COVERAGE: CORONAVIRUS IN GEORGIA
The virus is not expected to peak in Georgia until early May, according to computer models by the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation.
The models say Georgia could have a shortage of intensive-care hospital beds by May 1. Deaths are expected to increase daily through May 3 and continue into mid-June.
By then, the models predict, as many as 3,700 Georgians may have died from the virus.
While navigating these conflicting crises, Kemp has spoken in recent days with business leaders — from the state’s agriculture, manufacturing and banking industries, among others — as well as members of his coronavirus task force for advice on when reopening the economy would be “appropriate,” said Candice Broce, a spokeswoman for the governor. Kemp also has talked with Georgia House Speaker David Ralston and Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan.
“These discussions are active and ongoing,” Broce said in an email. “Above all, the governor is committed to ensuring the health and well-being of Georgians, bolstering our testing capabilities, and continuing to develop healthcare capacity as we make plans for our future.”
Members of the task force’s economic impact committee said Thursday that no one wants to lift restrictions too soon. But, as committee member Will Bentley, president of the Georgia Agribusiness Council, put it: “We can’t live like this forever.”
Another member, state Rep. Clay Pirkle, R-Ashburn, agreed. “At some point, we’ve got to get the economy back running on all cylinders, keeping in mind the health and safety of our citizens,” he said.
Public health experts favor a slower easing of restrictions, in large part because Georgia’s low testing rate — 45th among the states and the District of Columbia in tests per capita — has made tracking and containing the virus difficult.
“The question is not when can we do it, but how will we know when we can do it,” Dr. Harry J. Heiman, a clinical associate professor at Georgia State University’s School of Public Health, said Thursday.
First, Heiman said, officials need more details about how the virus has spread and about what groups are more likely to be infected. Demographic details — age, race, ethnicity, place of residence — are critical, he said.
The state should take “a very thoughtful, phased approach” based on data, Heiman said, to reopening businesses and other activities.
“Once we decide we have this tamped down, we need to be able to identify and contain new cases,” Heiman said. “Or else we’ll be back to where we are today.”
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Staff writers Michael Kanell and James Salzer contributed to this article.