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

By Dave Williams and Beau Evans

ATLANTA – Public health experts and local elected officials raised concerns Tuesday over whether Georgia businesses are ready to reopen safely while the coronavirus pandemic continues to chalk up new infections and deaths.

But business leaders welcomed Gov. Brian Kemp’s announcement Monday that some businesses will be allowed to reopen as soon as the end of this week as a first step toward getting critically needed cash back into their coffers.

Kemp said Monday a host of businesses including gyms, fitness centers, bowling alleys, tattoo parlors, barbershops and hairdressers will be allowed to reopen this Friday. Dine-in restaurants and movie theaters can throw open their doors next Monday.

While the number of Georgians who have died from COVID-19 was up to 799 as of noon Tuesday and positive cases had risen to 19,881, Kemp said the number of new cases is flattening and emergency room visits are declining. He also announced a plan to increase both testing for the virus and the contact tracing that follows patients who test positive for coronavirus.

“Our citizens are ready for this,” the governor said Monday. “People know what social distancing is.”

“We have the hospital bed capacity and the ramped-up testing and contact tracing,” he said. “I believe we will be able to stay on top of it.”

Georgia mayors criticize Kemp

Mayors across Georgia criticized reopening businesses as premature and potentially dangerous.

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said during an interview broadcast by CNN that any progress Georgia has made against the spread of coronavirus stems from the statewide shelter-in-place order Kemp imposed through the end of this month.

“If we’re in a better position, it’s because we’ve been aggressive in asking people to stay home,” she said. “I’m perplexed that we have opened up in this way. I don’t see that it’s based on anything that’s logical.”

Athens Mayor Kelly Girtz, who issued a shelter-in-place order two weeks before the statewide order went into effect early this month, said it’s too soon to reopen businesses while there’s still a lack of adequate testing.

“It’s like sending a football player onto the football field saying, ‘Eventually, we’re going to give you some pads and a helmet. Eventually,’” he said.

Barbershops, beauty parlors and nail salons are exactly the type of settings where it’s impossible to maintain social distancing, said Albany Mayor Bo Dorough, also in an interview with CNN.

Dorough worried Albany, one of the hardest-hit outbreak areas in the country, could see a reversal of gains made recently toward curbing hospital admissions and viral transmissions due to social distancing.

“I understand the governor had a difficult decision to make,” Dorough said. “I do, however, think he made the wrong decision.”

Health experts fear another outbreak

Several public health experts also cast doubt Tuesday on whether the state is ready to reopen social gathering spots like restaurants.

Georgia has not met the federal criteria for seeing a steady decline in cases over a 14-day period before many businesses should start reopening, said Carlos del Rio, who chairs the Hubert Department of Global Health at Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health.

“Clearly, we’re not there,” del Rio said on Facebook. “We haven’t even met that requirement.”

That opinion was echoed by Grace Bagwell Adams, an associate professor of health policy and management at the University of Georgia. She also noted testing still is not comprehensive enough to quickly track where the virus is spreading.

“In all likelihood, we’ll see the cases go back up,” Adams said Tuesday. “That’s just the reality of the way this virus spreads.”

Federal and state officials often cite modeling from the University of Washington that shows Georgia has passed its peak in the number of COVID-19 cases and hospital admissions. But other models compiled at the University of Georgia paint a different picture of the transmission rate, said Andreas Handel, an associate professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at UGA’s College of Public Health.

That modeling shows COVID-19 cases appear to be flattening, but it’s not clear yet whether they have started to decrease, Handel said Tuesday. Until a steady decline happens, reopening businesses where people tend to congregate too soon could spark another outbreak, potentially worse than what Georgia has seen so far, Handel said.

“In my opinion, it’s too early,” Handel said. “I don’t see the numbers cropping up to where it would be comfortable for reopening.”

While infection rates will likely go up if restrictions are relaxed now, it’s tough to predict how dramatically they might go up due to the small pool of test results the state has so far, said Isaac Fung, an associate professor of epidemiology at Georgia Southern University’s Jiann-Ping Hsu College of Public Health.

The trade-off, Fung said, is the elderly and people with chronic health issues who are most at risk from the virus have to keep isolated from the rest of the world longer than they would if popular gathering spots were to stay closed.

“The transmission is still going on in the community,” Fung said Tuesday. “Technically, there’s no end in sight until we have a very effective vaccine.”

Business leaders praise reopenings

While public health experts are worried about reopening businesses, one provision of Kemp’s order stands to benefit the health-care industry. Hospitals in Georgia will be allowed to resume elective surgeries, an important component of their revenue streams the COVID-19 outbreak has cut off.

Piedmont Healthcare’s 11 hospitals canceled elective surgeries back in early March.

“We took all of our resources, and really the services that provide the economic funding for the organization, and shut it off to build capacity in the system to be able to take care of the COVID patients as the pandemic rolled through Georgia,” Piedmont CEO Kevin Brown told the Atlanta Business Chronicle earlier this month.

“It’s an enormous fiscal cost to the organization, as well as other health care systems here in Georgia and across the country,” Brown said.

Chris Clark, president and CEO of the Georgia Chamber of Commerce, said Tuesday the criticism of Kemp’s decision to reopen businesses ignores the “measured and reasonable approach” the governor is taking.

Businesses that wish to reopen will have to follow a lengthy set of guidelines, including taking their employees’ temperatures, practicing safe distancing, disinfecting the premises and providing masks, he said.

“[Kemp] didn’t just say, ‘The economy is open,’ Clark said. “Every business has to figure out how to operate in this new normal.”

Clark said the safety guidelines will require many businesses to limit the number of customers they can serve at a time.

“What they’re asking is just to do enough to get by in the short term,” he said. “This still isn’t going to save some businesses.”

Clark pointed out Kemp’s decision does not require businesses to reopen. In fact, he expects some will choose not to because they don’t feel ready.

“This is not a mandate,” he said.