Atlanta’s latest coronavirus updates: Tuesday, April 21

A quick roundup of what's happening in metro Atlanta and what you may have missed

Governor Brian Kemp
Governor Brian Kemp

Photograph courtesy of the Office of the Governor

On Monday, Governor Brian Kemp announced his plans to re-open Georgia. Here’s your Tuesday morning update:

• There are now 19,399 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Georgia. 775 people have died. 3,703 have been hospitalized. 84,328 tests have been conducted. [GA Dept. of Public Health]

• Monday saw the second-highest recorded number of new positive COVID-19 cases so far, per this AJC chart of the state’s data, along with 86 deaths; nevertheless, Governor Brian Kemp held a press conference Monday afternoon to announce he would begin re-opening businesses in Georgia as soon as this Friday. The announcement came as a shock to many, as President Trump’s federal recommendations call for states to have at least 14 days of decline in positive cases before easing restrictions. Kemp stated in his press conference, “According to the Department of Public Health, reports of emergency room visits for flu-like illnesses are declining, documented COVID-19 cases have flattened and appear to be declining, and we have seen declining emergency room visits in general,” but plotting the daily numbers from the health department does not show a consistent decline in cases. The state today released a new chart of the rolling average daily count that shows cases starting to decline, but not a 14-day decline.

This is a stunning development, so let’s break it down further:

•  Beginning Friday, April 24, gyms, fitness centers, bowling alleys, body art studios (tattoo and piercing parlors), barbershops, hair salons, estheticians (waxing, threading, eyelash extension, cosmetic treatments, etc.), massage therapists, and cosmetology schools can re-open. Technically, the order states they may begin “in-person Minimum Basic Operations,” but those definitions are loose and include “provide services” among other duties such as payroll and inventory. The order includes a long list of safety procedures the businesses are asked to adopt, including increased sanitation, screening employees for fever, implementing teleworking or staggered shifts as possible, prohibiting handshakes, enforcing social distancing, and increasing workspace to six feet between employees, among other conditions. Of course, not all of these procedures will be applicable to every business—a hairdresser cannot be six feet away from clients, for example. Another caveat is that the businesses are not to have more than 10 people inside at a time unless they can remain six feet apart at all times.

• Elective medical services—elective surgeries, dental offices, physical therapists, optometrists, among other services—”should begin treating patients as soon as practicable,” according to the order. Governor Kemp’s April 3 shelter-in-place order did not actually order any of these businesses to close, although some have elected to close on their own. The order encourages those who voluntarily closed to re-open.

• While not explicitly defined in Kemp’s executive order, the governor announced at the press conference that restaurants will be able to open for in-person dining on Monday, April 27. Theaters (it was specified whether or not this means movie or live) and private social clubs will also be allowed to re-open.

• Bars, entertainment venues, and amusement parks will not yet be allowed to re-open.

• Georgia’s shelter-in-place order is still in effect through April 30, with those who are at an even greater risk for the virus asked to stay home through May 13. So even though these businesses are open, Georgians are still supposed to stay home as much as possible and wear cloth face masks when they go out.

• The executive order will also be the law for all of Georgia. Mayors and county officials cannot set their own orders, so Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, for example, cannot order all Atlanta barbershops to close.

That’s the order itself. Let’s look at the responses:

• Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms appeared on ABC News after the conference and said she is asking Atlantans to stay home. She noted that neither she nor Augusta Mayor Hardie Davis had spoken with Kemp prior to the announcement. “I am not sure what data the governor is referencing in helping him make this decision. . . . What I do know is that we had nearly 19,000 people who tested positive as of this evening,” Bottoms said. Bottoms also announced that she has created an advisory council to discuss plans for re-opening Atlanta specifically, with members from APS, MARTA, the airport, Grady Hospital, Emory University, Morehouse School of Medicine, Atlanta’s major sports teams, the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, and many others. [ABC News/Mayor’s Office]

• Kemp repeatedly called the actions “measured,” and when asked how he felt about making such a crucial decision, he responded, “I don’t give a damn about politics right now. 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 . . . we also have got to think about the effects on our economy and these individuals from a mental health perspective, from a physical health perspective, and literally for people being able to put food on their tables. And I believe this measured approach has got us to the time to trust our people and to keep going after and beating this virus, but doing it in a way that’s responsible.” [AJC]

• Albany Mayor Bo Dorough was also not consulted on the re-opening plan and told an NBC news reporter that he was concerned “because what we have done is demonstrably curbed the spread of the virus, and what Governor Kemp has done has basically eliminated those measures.” He told the AJC that the decision was “irresponsible” and that he’s “flabbergasted that the governor would say we can’t take additional precautions to protect our citizens. This isn’t a mixed signal. It’s a U-turn.” [Twitter/AJC]

The AJC spoke with Dr. Marc Lipsitch, an epidemiology professor at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, who told them Kemp’s plan was risky. “If you open up enough, it’s almost for certain the virus will hit Georgia again. It’s just waiting for more susceptible people and more contacts. That’s how viruses work.” [AJC]

• Kemp’s barber Tommy Thomas, who owns a shop in Buckhead, told Atlanta-based New Yorker writer Charles Bethea that he “can’t wait to open on Friday,” and praised the governor’s actions. [Twitter]

The AJC‘s editorial board published a story that said Kemp is “moving too soon” and “risking a resurgence of the coronavirus in our state.” While the piece praises Kemp’s passion for Georgia businesses, it notes the tough statistics—that Georgia is in the bottom 10 in testing per capita nationwide and is among the states with the most cases and fatalities. The piece is critical of Kemp’s lack of a specific plan for increasing critical testing and contact tracing methods: “[Kemp] seemed to brush past showing how the state would develop an important anti-pandemic weapon that heretofore has hardly been mentioned. The contact tracing and ramp-up in tests promised by Kemp are still weeks away, even if everything goes smoothly, and nothing has gone smoothly so far.” The editorial board stresses the governor should focus on goals rather than arbitrary dates, and concludes, “Governor Kemp may have been too willing to accommodate us at the risk of our health and lives.” Read the full piece here. [AJC]

That’s the order in a nutshell. As for Monday’s other updates:

• Along with the re-opening plans, Kemp also announced he would broaden a partnership with Augusta University Health to increase testing in the state. The state will open a COVID-19 command center at the university, and Augusta has launched an app that will virtually screen symptomatic patients and connect them to testing sites. The university is also using 3-D printing to create additional swabs for testing. The National Guard will be sending more teams to administer tests in “hot spots and long-term care facilities,” per Georgia Health News. [GHN]

• Don’t expect the big chain movie theaters like AMC and Regal to come back right away, Variety says, citing increased liability if a patron gets sick, the need to bring back laid-off workers, and the fact that there just aren’t a ton of movies to screen right now. As for the independent theaters, Plaza Theatre owner Christopher Escobar told Variety he doesn’t plan to re-open until June. “While nothing would make me happier than all of this being over and getting the ‘all clear,’ other than there being political pressure, I haven’t seen anything of the sort,” he said. [Variety]

• The decision to re-open the state so quickly has once again put Georgia in the national spotlight, with many mocking the decision to re-open bowling alleys in particular. This Vanity Fair headline is particularly damming.

• Sweet Auburn Barbecue is planning to bring its food truck out to several different neighborhoods as a way to keep serving during the outbreak. [Eater Atlanta]