Governor Kemp has made his choice clear. What about yours?

Do you promote the individual health of the constituents of our world, or do you promote somebody’s idea of the “economy"?

Governor Brian Kemp
Governor Brian Kemp at a March 9 press conference, with public health commissioner Dr. Kathleen Toomey looking on

Photograph by Bryan Horn/Office of the Governor

Robert Woodruff, the man who turned Coca-Cola from a syrupy Georgia drink into an international icon, kept a little place out in the country: Ichauway, a 30,000-acre estate near Albany where he liked to hunt quail. Albany has recently become a kind of tragic pandemic poster child, but in Woodruff’s day another public health concern prevailed: malaria, a disease of fever and lassitude. Woodruff became concerned about its effects on the workforce and, in the late 1930s, he made some land at Ichauway available to researchers studying the disease. In the next decade that site was taken over by an emerging Atlanta laboratory called the Communicable Disease Center, or CDC, whose mission was also to stop the spread of malaria. Woodruff was frank about his motivations: “I wasn’t thinking of it as a humane program, because it was an economic situation, too,” he said later. “A man that is ill can’t work. He’s no good.”

Or … perhaps a man that is ill can work? Last week, citing the president’s wish to “reopen our nation’s economy” in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, Governor Brian Kemp announced his own little study of the relationship between illness and economics: a large-scale experiment to learn whether a highly contagious, poorly understood virus can truly be contained in a population that broadly hasn’t been tested for it and may not necessarily show symptoms of it as it spreads, along with a suite of auxiliary experiments—to learn, for instance, how a citizenry that’s been asked to stay six feet apart can still give one another haircuts and mani-pedis.

Pursuant to Kemp’s plan, restaurants in Georgia began to offer dine-in service today. Vital businesses such as bowling alleys were allowed to reopen this past Friday, which is also when the barbering began. How long our hair has gotten, how lonely our bowling shoes. Safety restrictions will be in place: The Georgia State Board of Cosmetologists issued four pages of guidelines for salons to follow, including using infrared thermometers to check employee and patron temperatures at the door, disinfecting thoroughly and often, and wearing face masks. It raised more questions than it answered: Where are these thermometers available? Where is this disinfectant available? Where is this protective equipment coming from? As the Atlanta Journal-Constitution points out, salon owners have now been “thrown into the competition with hospitals for protective face masks.” You gotta love a healthy market solution in action.

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It’s possible nowadays to forget why Atlanta is an international center of infectious disease research but in short: The CDC was founded here because this is where the disease was. Malaria and other mosquito-borne illnesses do best where mosquitoes thrive, and they thrive particularly in Georgia’s many marshes and swamps; malaria was widespread across the South until its elimination in the mid-20th century. On Woodruff’s old estate, which is now an ecological research center, the watery sinkholes of the limestone topography acted as little insect nurseries.  

Letting scientists work on his land for years, Woodruff was pursuing his economic interests, but his patience had beneficial effects that were not strictly economic—public health being a field in which positive outcomes are ideally not just immediate and individual, but widely shared and long-lasting. It’s good when one person’s symptoms clear up, better when many people are healthy for a good while. In some cases, the robust health of the community directly benefits individual constituents: That’s the idea of herd immunity. 

Local expertise in infectious disease is long and deep, in other words, but today the governor appears to be listening to another song entirely. The public health campaign against the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 is often described as a “battle” against the disease, but it’s linked inextricably—in the U.S., anyway—with another battle, which has been going on longer: between conservative politicians and those they perceive to be hampering economic activity through needless regulation, whether that’s other elected officials, scientists, or civil servants. Kemp’s plan for “reopening” the state contravenes the wishes of just about every public health official who’s been asked to comment on it, and it was reported that Anthony Fauci, the most high-profile member of the president’s coronavirus task force—feet desperately worn out after months of walking on eggshells—flatly refused to support it. So did Trump, sort of: The president reportedly first gave Kemp the go-ahead, but was then prevailed upon by the task force to change his mind. 

“By easing the restrictions, Kemp had appeared to be carrying out Trump’s wishes” was how the AJC put it, poignantly. One imagines Kemp’s alarm as the most powerful force in media (if not in actual governance) turned on him: As last week wore on, Trump—even after having urged citizens of various states under Democratic governance to “liberate” themselves from the onerous restrictions keeping them away from their own local bowling alleys—continued to double down on his condemnations. “I wasn’t happy with Brian Kemp,” he said, several times. (In the New Yorker, an Athens hairdresser offered a plausible theory of the case: She thought Trump urged Kemp to reopen Georgia “to see how people will react,” with plans to hang him out to dry if it went badly.)

Like all the other shitty remakes we’re seeing these days, the 2020 version of “What did the president know and when did he know it?” is less nuanced than the original: Literally nobody knows anything, and they never did. Brian Kemp was, famously, the last man in the country to know that the coronavirus can be spread by persons showing few to no symptoms. Announcing his shelter-in-place directive in early April, he professed ignorance on the matter more than six weeks after the CDC director, Robert Redfield, had commented on CNN on the apparent prevalence of “asymptomatic illness,” and a month after the CDC—again, located in the same city where Kemp keeps an office—had begun warning about presymptomatic spread.

So: The governor has run afoul repeatedly of broad medical opinion, and he’s also, somehow, run afoul of a man who went on TV the other day to promote the potential medical benefits of drinking bleach. Who is Kemp listening to? Who knows. He’s at least explained who we should take our cues from going forward: “The private sector has to convince the public it’s safe to go back into these businesses,” he said. If those businesses don’t act properly, Kemp said, the state will step in.

And a bowling alley owner shall lead them. As far as this particular pandemic goes, though, relying on the private sector to take the lead has not put us in good stead yet. The federal government spent the last few years defunding disease surveillance, while pharmaceutical companies have altogether avoided tackling the public health threats that endanger the most people but promise the fewest profits, including antibiotic-resistant bacteria and zoonotic diseases such as coronaviruses. In early March, explaining to a House committee why a test for the new virus had been so slow in materializing, CDC director Redfield said, “I guess I anticipated that the private sector would have helped develop it for the clinical side. . . . I can tell you, having lived through the last eight weeks, I would have loved the private sector to be fully engaged eight weeks ago.” This moment, with the American government gapingly ill-prepared in the face of a devastating if entirely predictable catastrophe, marked the realization of a decades-long right-wing dream—shrink the government so small you could drown it in a bathtub, let the market sort it out—but, as Alex Pareene wrote in the New Republic, “It didn’t occur to the right that a more terrifying series of words than ‘I’m from the government, and I’m here to help’ would turn out to be ‘I’m from the government, and I guess I anticipated that the private sector would have engaged.” To quote the great Rick Perry: “Oops.”

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A couple years ago, for this magazine, I wrote a story about how communities on the coast were facing the prospect of rising sea levels caused by global warming; according to moderate estimates, the coast could be inundated up to three feet by the end of the century, and more alarming predictions put it at twice that. There’s some promising news out there: Tybee Island, for instance, has proactively sought to understand the scope of the threat and figure out what can be done to mitigate it. But as I worked on the article, I couldn’t help but feel depressed about the scale of the action undertaken locally versus the scale of the action required. Admirably, citizens and local leaders were doing what they could in the face of a problem of almost ungraspable magnitude. But the people who actually have the power to slow the ocean’s rising? They were far away and—in the American government, anyway—they weren’t even trying.

Tybee was back in the news recently when Kemp’s shelter-in-place order, issued April 1, had the curious effect of reopening the island’s beaches, which Tybee mayor Shirley Sessions had previously closed. Like Keisha Lance Bottoms and Van Johnson, mayors of Atlanta and Savannah respectively, Sessions had been quicker than the state to institute restrictive measurements—only to find herself second-guessed, and to learn that the future of her community and its well-being could be buffeted by forces hundreds of miles away. Not for the first time for Tybee Island, of course, and not for the last time either—it’s the story of climate change writ small. Now that the state is on a path to “reopening,” Kemp’s authority continues to supersede that of mayors around the state who would prefer to put their communities on a more responsible footing. Their cities cannot continue sheltering in place. The tool the mayors are left with is, as the AJC’s Jim Galloway put it on GPB’s Political Rewind recently, “government by persuasion.”

Fortunately they’re also left with persuadable constituencies. I could just be speaking for myself, but it’s comforting in these terrifying times to feel as if somebody is in charge who has some resources and expertise at their disposal. I’d love somebody to tell me the best way to protect myself and my neighbors, and “I’m from the government, and you can go bowling again” isn’t particularly warm assurance. Many of the state’s mayors—who weren’t consulted on Kemp’s plan—are urging their constituents to, basically, ignore it: In Savannah, Van Johnson held a video call with some 70 local faith leaders and implored them to keep their worship remote. Apparently all of them agreed. Mayor Bottoms and Mayor Hardie Davis Jr. of Augusta have both urged constituents to keep staying home. (Davis, Bottoms, and Johnson are all black, as are 54 percent of the Georgians known to have died of COVID-19, despite the fact that African American people make up just under a third of the state’s population. That Kemp’s cavalierness is unsurprising doesn’t make it any less of a scandal.) Albany mayor Bo Dorough, whose town became an international example of how quickly and stealthily this lethal virus can spread, said that he was “flabbergasted that the governor would say we can’t take additional precautions to protect our citizens.” Many restaurants that can open now are declining to do so. “No, thank you,” Atlanta chef and restaurateur Hugh Acheson wrote in an op-ed in the Washington Post.

What a strange situation: a state executive telling his constituents to go out and enjoy their freedom, and so many constituents saying, in effect, We’d prefer not to. But somebody’s got to play the grown-up. Business owners aren’t paid to manage pandemics, yet in this gaping maw of leadership they’re forced into tortured decisions: risk the health of their own employees by opening up, or staying safe and staying closed? Is your business more important than your employees’ lives? Their workers—the customer-facing employees often working for low wages and no health insurance—are the true subjects of Kemp’s experiment, and it’s grotesque that they’re having to rely on nothing more than good wishes from the governor and the magnanimity of their bosses. (One theory about Kemp’s eagerness to get things going again is he doesn’t want workers relying overmuch on the magnanimity of the state’s rapidly shrinking unemployment coffers.) Businesspeople can be magnanimous; they can, as in Robert Woodruff’s case, see some confluence between the public good or their own bottom line; or they’re free to take the straightest line toward their own profit. In any case, it’s not their job to protect us.

It is ideally the job of political leaders to be guided by the common good, which is not the same thing as “the economy.” The economy is an abstract system that offers a very imperfect kind of shorthand representation of the value of goods and labor. Good news: Abstract systems are not fixed, like rocks and galaxies; they can be reimagined completely. That’s the difference between an economy and a human body, an immune system. An economy can be remade to fit the needs of the human beings whose lives it imperfectly relates to. An immune system can be bolstered by us, it can be manipulated by our doctors, but it cannot be redesigned or reconstructed. It cannot be restarted. It succeeds or it fails; we live or we die. We as a polity can choose to promote the individual health of the constituents of our world—our friends and family, our loved ones, ourselves—or we can promote somebody’s idea of the “economy” in which the wealth flows mainly in one direction: away from the people forced to go back to work this week. But there’s no doing both. Somebody, somewhere, will have to choose.