Kemp to end shelter-in-place except for Georgians most at risk

Coronavirus has sickened thousands in Georgia and killed hundreds. (Image: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

Gov. Brian Kemp will release most Georgians from the state’s shelter-in-place order after Thursday night except for people ages 65 and older, seniors living in long-term care facilities and persons with certain chronic health issues, the governor announced Thursday afternoon.

Older persons and the chronically ill, who health officials have stressed are most at risk for harmful effects from coronavirus, must remain sheltered-in-place through June 12.

Also on Thursday, Kemp outlined a series of social-distancing restrictions that Georgia businesses will need to continue following in the coming weeks, depending on the type of business.  As it stands, those restrictions are poised to be lifted on 11:59 p.m. May 13.

Strict distancing rules limiting the number of customers and requiring vigorous sanitizing measures will remain in effect through May 13 for dine-in restaurants, gyms, barbershops and many other close-quarter establishments that were allowed to reopen as of Monday.

Bars, nightclubs, swimming pools and amusement parks will have to remain closed through May 13, after which they may also reopen unless Kemp moves to extend closure orders.

Georgians with chronic health conditions that the governor’s office listed are subject to the June 12 shelter-in-place order include those with chronic lung disease, moderate to severe asthma, severe heart disease, immunocompromised conditions, class III or severe obesity, and patients with diabetes, liver disease or chronic kidney disease undergoing dialysis.

For many Georgia residents and businesses, Kemp’s move Thursday looks to pare back a host of mandatory closures and restrictions on physical interactions that many health experts have credited with slowing the spread of coronavirus, but which have also prompted severely negative consequences for the state’s economy.

In a video Thursday, the governor reiterated he is basing the decision to lift most restrictions on encouraging data trends that show declining coronavirus transmission rates as well as efforts in recent weeks to ready hundreds of hospital beds for use during patient surge periods.

“The health and well-being of Georgians are my top priorities, and my decisions are based on data and advice from health officials,” Kemp said. “I will do what is necessary to protect the lives and livelihoods of our people.”

At a news conference Monday, the governor said the state largely has been following federal guidelines for deciding when to let businesses reopen, while also weighing input from local health officials and the dire financial situation facing many business owners who have been shuttered for weeks.

Hundreds of thousands of Georgians have been out of work since March with nearly 1.4 million workers and their employers having filed unemployment claims as of last week, the state Department of Labor reported Thursday. The state budget is expected to be billions of dollars in the hole due to a steep drop in recent tax revenues.

On Monday, the state’s public health commissioner, Dr. Kathleen Toomey, said Georgia is on track to see a “plateauing” of positive COVID-19 cases, even though the state had not met all the federal guidelines for allowing businesses to reopen. She noted cases of reported flu-like illnesses as well as hospitalizations have been declining and that positive cases have fallen “as a percentage of total tests.”

“We will continue to closely monitor the data to ensure these encouraging patterns we are seeing continue to improve,” Toomey said in a video Monday night.

Many local health experts have shown skepticism toward relying on models published and updated daily on the state Department of Public Health’s website. They have pointed to other models and studies, some compiled by local university researchers, that indicate Georgia could see a flare-up in coronavirus outbreaks if social restrictions are lifted sooner rather than later.

One study, released this week by the University of Georgia’s Center for the Ecology of Infectious Diseases, estimated that relaxing the social distancing measures in place since March could cause an additional 1,500 deaths from coronavirus in Georgia, plus tens of thousands more cases.

Another modeling tool, created by researchers at Georgia Tech and Harvard Medical School, predicts a second wave of COVID-19 cases and deaths could soon hit Georgia if social restrictions are loosened.

Meanwhile, Georgia Democratic leaders and lawmakers blasted Kemp on social media and in news releases Thursday afternoon. Sen. Nikema Williams, who chairs the Democratic Party of Georgia, accused the governor of “playing a dangerous game” with his decision Thursday.

“It is reckless and irresponsible for Kemp to use Georgians as the guinea pigs in a public health experiment that will go wrong,” said Williams, D-Atlanta. “Today’s decision will have consequences — for our overworked health systems, for our struggling essential workers, and for our lives.”

Georgia House set to resume committee meetings suspended by coronavirus

Georgia House Speaker David Ralston

ATLANTA – The Georgia House of Representatives is gearing up to resume a 2020 legislative session interrupted in mid-March by the coronavirus pandemic.

In a letter to House members and staff dated Thursday, Speaker David Ralston notified committee chairmen they may begin holding online meetings on Monday, May 4.

If all goes as planned, the House staff would report back to work in the state Capitol on May 18, and in-person committee meetings would resume on May 19.

“We remain mindful that the coronavirus still poses a risk, and we will alter our policies and procedures accordingly,” the speaker wrote. “Guidelines for employees will be provided in advance of a final decision on the staff report date. … [In-person committee] meetings will be subject to the provisions of any applicable public health directives.”

Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, indicated he is working with Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, the Senate’s presiding officer, to set a date to resume the legislative session. Duncan has expressed a preference for returning to the Gold Dome next month, but Ralston states in the letter he is anticipating lawmakers will reconvene on June 11.

Whenever lawmakers gavel in, it will be Day 30 of the 40-day legislative session. The most pressing business will be adopting a state budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1.

The House approved a $28.1 billion spending plan on March 10, three days before the session was suspended indefinitely. But all bets are off because of the financial impacts of the coronavirus pandemic, from the need for additional health-care services to the massive losses of state tax revenue resulting from thousands of businesses shutting their doors and laying off workers.

An Atlanta-based think tank released a report last week suggesting the state is facing a fiscal 2021 budget shortfall of up to $4 billion.

Georgia unemployment claims nearing 1.4M since coronavirus pandemic began

Georgia Commissioner of Labor Mark Butler

ATLANTA – More than 266,000 Georgians filed initial unemployment claims last week, up about 19,000 from the previous week, the state Department of Labor reported Thursday.

That brings to nearly 1.4 million the number of claims the labor agency has processed during the six weeks since schools and businesses began shutting down prompted by the coronavirus pandemic.

The industry sector in Georgia by far the hardest hit by job losses is accommodations and food services, with 396,209 initial unemployment claims during the past six weeks. Health care and social assistance is next with 157,496 claims, followed closely by retail trade with 156,123.

Workers in administrative and support services have filed 109,483 unemployment claims during the past six weeks, while 105,122 claims have come from those in manufacturing.

“The accommodation and food service sector has truly suffered during this pandemic,” Georgia Commissioner of Labor Mark Butler said Thursday. “We hope that employers and employees can work together to find a return-to-work plan that can work for both parties allowing for continued financial support from state and federal programs as we gradually reopen Georgia for business.”

Employers and their employees have worked together closely when it comes to filing claims. About 75% of the initial unemployment claims during the past six weeks have been filed by employers on behalf of their workers.

The labor department paid out more than $155 million in unemployment benefits last week, bringing the total for the past six weeks to $388 million. That’s more than the annual total for each of the past four years.

“Our employees are managing unprecedented numbers of claims and are getting people paid,” Butler said.

Many of the remaining unpaid claims are awaiting eligibility determination. Delays have occurred in cases where duplicate claims have been filed, identification has been requested, excessive weekly earnings have been reported or child support stops have been issued.

Butler said Georgians whose claims are ruled invalid still might be eligible for federal unemployment assistance. Groups eligible for the federal program include the self-employed, gig workers, 1099 independent contractors, employees of churches or other nonprofits or those with limited work history.

The Georgia Department of Labor has issued more than $700 million in federal funds during the past six weeks, including more than $336 million last week alone.

Meanwhile, the agency is continuing to post job opportunities. More than 106,000 jobs are listed online at

Georgia primary poised for huge absentee voting

ATLANTA – Georgia election officials have sent out around 700,000 absentee ballots so far for the upcoming June 9 primary election amid ongoing concerns over coronavirus.

The ballots stemmed from more than 1 million requests from voters to date to receive absentee ballots, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger said at a news conference Thursday. His office expects to field even more absentee-ballot requests in the coming weeks.

“We don’t know what it will be,” Raffensperger said. “But we don’t think we’re done yet with 39 days left to go.”

Absentee voting for the primary is poised to greatly outpace prior big-ticket elections in Georgia. For instance, voters cast roughly 223,000 absentee ballots in the high-turnout 2018 gubernatorial election, while about 207,000 absentee ballots were cast in Georgia in the 2016 presidential election.

The swell in absentee voting follows Raffensperger’s decision in late March to send absentee ballot request forms to all of Georgia’s nearly 7 million registered voters as concerns mounted over the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel strain of coronavirus that sparked a global pandemic.

Raffensperger has said the push for absentee ballots aims to curb in-person voting on Election Day and limit the chances for the virus to spread between voters and poll workers, who tend to be older adults more at risk from the harmful effects of COVID-19.

On top of the broader mail-in effort, the State Election Board recently allowed county election officials to install drop-off boxes for voters to hand in their absentee ballots rather than mail them.

Raffensperger’s office has also organized a group of local district attorneys, solicitors general and county election officials to help investigators track down potential instances of absentee fraud in the primary.

“We want a strong, robust, accurate, secure absentee ballot program so both sides of the aisle feel that they know that no one’s right has been diminished,” Raffensperger said Thursday.

Several observers including Georgia Democratic Party leaders have slammed the absentee fraud-detection group, likening it to voter intimidation.

Meanwhile, voter-protection groups and local elected officials have watched Raffensperger’s roll-out of the expanded absentee program with a mix of trepidation and praise. They have called for absentee voting to be expanded beyond the June 9 primary for the remainder of this year’s elections.

Some Democratic state lawmakers have said they are seeing confusion among voters as they submit absentee ballot request forms and receive ballots. Rep. Park Cannon, D-Atlanta, said last week she is conducting a survey to assess voters’ experience with the vote-by-mail process.

“What we know is that we are still gaining information on how Georgians are responding to the changes on the final decision on voting in Georgia,” Cannon said. “It is very important that we gain the public’s trust in the final decisions made on voting.”

Study finds digital technologies may displace workers unemployed due to coronavirus

Peter Bluestone, Georgia State University

ATLANTA – A new study by Georgia State University economists shows a strong correlation between Americans unemployed due to  coronavirus and those likely to be displaced by automation after the pandemic is over.

About 75% of industries at risk from COVID-19 closely match those with high potential for automation due to artificial intelligence (AI) and advanced computer technologies (ACT), according to a report released Wednesday by researchers and faculty at Georgia State’s Fiscal Research Center and Andrew Young School of Policy Studies.

The study also found about 50% of jobs in Georgia are at risk from AI and ACT. The vast majority of those jobs are among relatively low-paid occupations characterized by routine tasks that don’t require complex decision-making.

“The COVID-19 public health crisis is exacerbating AI’s structural changes to employment and occupation by increasing the speed of the transition to automation as a result of social distancing measures and concerns regarding the virus’ spread,” said Peter Bluestone, a senior research associate with the school’s Center for State and Local Finance, which published the study. “Education, business, medicine and other industries are finding creative ways to use digital technologies.”

The most vulnerable industries from coronavirus and the onward march of advanced technologies are accommodation and food services, arts and entertainment, wholesale and retail trade and construction, according to the study. Dominated by occupations paying relatively low wages and requiring low levels of education, many of these industries already put vulnerable workers at higher risk for economic instability.

On the other hand, the short-term threat of COVID-19 and long-term automation post vastly different threat levels for farmworkers. While fewer than 10% of agricultural jobs are at risk due to coronavirus, 58% are threatened by automation.

“This difference is understandable in that the virus lockdown cannot stop consumption,” Bluestone said. “Farmers are not likely to stop their production, although problems in logistics and transportation have already begun to impact production.”

The COVID-19 outbreak is expected to accelerate the transformation toward digital technology in businesses experiencing high numbers of layoffs prompted by the virus, according to the study. While the trend will increase productivity in the long run, it could make it difficult for workers lacking sufficient skills to compete in the changed labor market when the pandemic is over.

“Governments, nonprofits and the private sector have an opportunity to support these doubly displaced workers for the long term,” the report concludes. “This is the time for higher education – colleges, universities, vocational and technical schools – to be harnessed quickly to teach people digital and other tools that will be increasingly in demand as the COVID-19 cloud lifts.”