Local mayors’ reactions to Gov. Brian Kemp’s controversial business-reopening order range from muted statements to stinging criticisms. But all agree in seeking more details about how to carry it out if businesses start coming back as soon as Friday.
Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms went on TV to question the ability to “live to fight another day” under the order, and Brookhaven Mayor John Ernst feared Georgians could be “guinea pigs… fed to the snake.” Leaders in Dunwoody and Sandy Springs had quieter responses.
Kemp’s surprise April 20 order reversed the previous shutdowns of several types of close-quarters businesses, ranging from gyms to movie theaters to dine-in restaurants. Such businesses can reopen in some form — though details remain scant — on either April 24 or 27. The safety and financial risks of reopening under the order are already being questioned by several owners of local restaurants as well as bowling alley and movie theater operators.
Among the questions for local cities is whether or how they can enforce the safety standards that Kemp says are forthcoming. One point several city officials cited is that his original shutdown order prohibited municipal police from enforcing it, leaving open a question about policing any reopenings.
Shortly after Kemp issued the reopening, Bottoms appeared on CNN, saying it was a surprise to her and a decision with questionable logic.
“My mother ran a beauty salon, so I understand the economic pull of this, but you have to live to be able to fight another day,” Bottoms told CNN’s Chris Cuomo. “If we’re not alive on the other side, there won’t be a recovery to be had. How do you get a haircut and stay a safe distance from someone cutting your bangs?”
“When I look at the data, I see our [COVID-19] numbers are going up,” Bottoms said. “The death rate is up 1%, positives up 7%. We’re not testing for asymptomatic [cases].”
Just hours after Kemp announced that businesses like gyms, nail shops, hair salons and bowling alleys, could start reopening on Friday, the Georgia Department of Public Health released the latest COVID-19 statistics for the state showing that 42 more people had died since noon that day, bringing the death toll to 775. The total number of confirmed cases sat at 19,399.
“I’m perplexed that we’re opening up this way,” Bottoms said. “I don’t see what the data is based on that’s logical.”
Bottoms said she spoke to the mayor of Augusta, the state’s second-most populated city, who was also not consulted by Kemp. However, Kemp’s order is absolute and cannot be countermanded by cities or counties.
Bottoms order the formation of an advisory council on reopening businesses in Atlanta. The advisory council will include representatives from MARTA, Atlanta Public Schools, Grady Hospital, Emory University, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, and representatives from restaurants, retail, arts and culture community, the film industry and faith community, among others. The council is expected to produce a report by May 15.
In Brookhaven, Ernst said time will tell how Kemp’s order plays out, but that he thinks it is “extremely early” and “very dangerous to the economy.”
“I was hoping that other states were going to go first that were much farther along…,” Ernst said. “But we’re going to be the guinea pigs of the country and, again, I hope…that we’re not being fed to the snake as opposed to staying on that wheel.”
Ernst said he is concerned that the order may undo some of the benefits Brookhaven saw from being the first city in Georgia to order shutdowns and sheltering in place.
“I think it’s extremely early. I’m really not worried about my area currently because we social-distanced from the very beginning, almost three weeks before the governor and a week before the city of Atlanta [issued emergency orders]…,” Ernst said. “I’m worried about people coming in from other areas and infecting. I hope that I’m wrong.”
Ernst is also concerned the order is forcing the city’s hand on internal reopening planning. “We thought we’d have a more orderly transition of events,” he said. “I think it’s very dangerous for the economy… [If] we do have another peak and we have to shut down again, it will be death by a thousand cuts.”
The “very convoluted” legal question of local enforcement is another issue, Ernst said. He also questioned the underlying political tension of the reopening debate.
“This dichotomy of saying, ‘Oh, it’s health versus the economy’ I think is a false dichotomy that keeps being put out. It’s both. It’s kind of one and the same,” he said. “When people feel healthy and safe, the economy will come back. It won’t be before that. And it feels a little on the forced side at this point.”
“The thing is, we won’t know for 14 days whether this was the right decision,” Ernst said, referring to what medical experts say is COVID-19’s incubation period. “And if it’s not, we are going to be either right back into it or [we will] hurt the economy even more as everyone just keeps sheltering in place.”
Dunwoody Mayor Lynn Deutsch was among the officials who repeatedly called for Kemp to issue a statewide shutdown or other order. But Deutsch, through a city spokesperson, declined to comment on Kemp’s move to partly lift that shutdown.
Asked about how the city intends to respond to any complaints related to reopenings, spokesperson Jennifer Boettcher noted the enforcement question. “We’re sort of looking for more guidance and we’ll do our best to support the state order,” she said.
Sandy Springs Mayor Rusty Paul issued a two-sentence written statement through a city spokesperson.
“We had already begun planning for an eventual reopening. We are studying the governor’s order and will evaluate how we can safely implement his requirements,” Paul wrote.
The city did not respond to questions about what that planning involved.
–John Ruch and Collin Kelley