By Beau Evans
Capitol Beat News Service
ATLANTA - Restaurants, gyms, barbershops and other popular gathering spots in Georgia will be allowed to reopen in the coming days amid signs the spread of coronavirus is slowing down, Gov. Brian Kemp announced Monday.
However, several businesses hit hard by virus-prompted closures will have to stay shuttered for the foreseeable future including bars, nightclubs, music venues and amusement parks, the governor said.
The phased approach follows guidelines from federal officials and President Donald Trump, who has urged states to reopen many businesses following weeks of widespread shutdowns.
Kemp stressed at a news conference Monday that businesses set to reopen must abide by the same social-distancing and sanitation measures as other businesses that were not forced to close amid Georgia’s shelter-in-place order.
“I think this is the right approach at the right time,” Kemp said. “It’s not just throwing the keys back to business owners.”
A host of businesses will be allowed to reopen on Friday including gyms, fitness centers, bowling alleys, tattoo parlors, barbershops, cosmetologists, hair designers, nail salons, estheticians, massage therapists and schools for those trades.
Dine-in restaurants and movie theaters will be allowed to reopen next Monday, Kemp said. Elective surgeries that were put on hold to help hospitals tackle COVID-19 patients will also be permitted to resume.
Additionally, churches will be allowed to hold in-person services so long as worshippers keep their distance from each other. Meanwhile, many other establishments will not be allowed to reopen yet.
They include bars, night clubs, amusement parks and live-performance venues. Public schools in Georgia will “absolutely” remain closed for the rest of this school year despite the gradual reopening of other activities in the state, Kemp said.
The governor indicated he may not extend the statewide shelter-in-place order again after it expires at the end of this month. But he also urged seniors and people with chronic health issues to continue staying home until at least through May 13, when the state’s public health emergency is set to expire.
As of noon Monday, nearly 19,000 people in Georgia had tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel strain of coronavirus that sparked a global pandemic. The virus had killed 733 Georgians.
Still, national modeling and local data are starting to show a slowdown in the number of positive cases, hospital admissions and deaths traced to coronavirus, said Dr. Kathleen Toomey, the state’s public health commissioner.
On Monday, Toomey said Georgia is on track to see enough of a decrease in the rate at which the virus is spreading to likely be able to safely lift the statewide shelter-in-place order by month’s end.
By then, state officials working with volunteers and medical students should be well underway with a new effort to undertake massive statewide “contact tracing,” which will track in detail the web of interactions that those who contract coronavirus have with other people, Toomey said.
“This is the way we’re going to stop the virus,” Toomey said Monday. “This is the way we’re going to keep spread from occurring even as we begin to gradually open up the state.”
The governor also highlighted a push to increase the number of tests that can be done per day by local universities and the Georgia National Guard. More state testing should help reduce Georgia’s heavy reliance on commercial tests, which often come with slow result turnaround times.
As part of the testing push, Kemp touted a mobile screening app created by Augusta University that lets doctors diagnose a person’s symptoms via live video and, if necessary, formally refer that person to a nearby testing site.
The university has also started producing mouth swabs from 3-D printers to expand the availability of diagnostic testing supplies, Kemp said. Augusta University will also host an operation center run by the National Guard that aims to tighten coordination between several state agencies on COVID-19 testing and information-sharing efforts.
“That will serve as Gov. Kemp’s unblinking eye on coronavirus,” said National Guard Adj. Gen. Thomas Carden. At Monday’s news conference, the governor batted back skepticism from some health officials and experts over whether states like Georgia are ready to emerge from mandatory closures of gathering places like restaurants.
Kemp noted the phased-in reopening approach is meant to ease financial hardships for workers and business owners while giving health officials more time to ramp up testing and tracking programs, which will prove key once more people go back to work.
“These are tough decisions, no doubt,” Kemp said. “But we’ve also got to think about the effects on our economy and on these individuals from a mental health perspective, from a physical health perspective and literally for people being able to put food on their tables.”
The governor was backed in the decision by top state leaders like Georgia House Speaker David Ralston, who emphasized the challenge of balancing concerns for people who are losing loved ones to the virus with the possibility of many residents losing their livelihoods.
“These are measured, balanced steps,” Ralston said. “They don’t go as far as some would like. But I think they go as far as we can responsibly go at this time.”