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Georgia Reopens Some Businesses, Despite Objections

Shannon Stafford styles the hair of Ebony Housey at her salon in Savannah, Ga., April 24, 2020.

Some businesses in the U.S. state of Georgia that were shuttered because of the coronavirus pandemic began reopening Friday, despite objections from President Donald Trump and health experts.

Republican Governor Brian Kemp moved to reopen some nonessential businesses “on a limited basis” to help reinvigorate Georgia’s economy before lifting the state’s monthlong shutdown on April 30, amid warnings the move could spark a new surge in coronavirus infections.

Hair salons, gyms, tattoo shops, massage therapists and other nonessential businesses are now allowed to reopen, as are dine-in restaurants. Places of worship can also hold services “in accordance with strict social distancing protocols.”

Lester Crowell, managing partner of Three-13 Salon, Spa & Boutique in  Marietta, Ga., changes the letters of the salon's sign, April 24, 2020.
Lester Crowell, managing partner of Three-13 Salon, Spa & Boutique in  Marietta, Ga., changes the letters of the salon's sign, April 24, 2020.

Georgia is the first U.S. state to launch a widespread reopening effort and has become a flashpoint in a national debate over how quickly states should start allowing shuttered businesses to reopen.

The governor of the U.S. state of Oklahoma, Kevin Stitt, also allowed some retail businesses to reopen Friday, and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis opened some of its beaches to visitors a week ago. The state of South Carolina eased some restrictions Monday, and other states plan to relax guidelines next week.

In Georgia, people lined up early Friday at hair salons and barbershops in the state capital, Atlanta, and its suburbs to get trims and treatments for the first time in weeks.

A WSB television reporter tweeted a photo of a man getting his hair cut at the newly reopened Peachtree Battle Barber Shop in Atlanta. A bowling alley in the city of Rome said in a Facebook post that it would reopen with social distancing rules.

A nail salon owner in the city of Savannah, David Huynh, said he had 60 clients scheduled for appointments early Friday. Four women holding face masks were waiting outside the salon when it opened for the first time in nearly a month.

“The phone’s been ringing off the hook,” Huynh said. “We’ve probably gotten hundreds of calls in the last hour.”

Huynh said a chocolatier, a jewelry shop and a clothing store that share a street corner with his business remained closed.

Some stay closed

Many business owners resisted Kemp’s directive, choosing to keep their doors closed as deaths and infections in Georgia continue to climb.

A massage therapist in the city of Marietta, Shannon Pengitore, said she had a few client inquiries about appointments this week but decided not to open because she has not seen clear procedures from the state for protecting herself and her clients.

“Massage therapy is continual contact with the customer for long periods of time in a small room,” Pengitore said. “If I’m not really comfortable with this, what’s getting transmitted to them? It’s a lot of anxiety.”

Atlanta advertising employee Nikki Thomas, who has been working from home for six weeks, said she needs to visit her hairstylist but has no plans to make an appointment in the foreseeable future just because of Kemp’s decision.

“It’s obviously extremely stupid, and I’m simultaneously exhausted and so angry I can barely see straight,” Thomas said.

FILE - Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp. Georgia is the first U.S. state to launch a widespread reopening effort.
FILE - Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp. Georgia is the first U.S. state to launch a widespread reopening effort.

Still, Kemp has assured Georgia residents that hospital visits and new cases of the virus have leveled off enough to allow some nonessential businesses to reopen with restrictions, including screening customers for possible symptoms, using protective gear and regular cleanings.

But a model maintained by the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), which is used by the White House, projects hospitalizations in Georgia will peak next week and recommends that Georgia should not open until June 22.

Kemp has said it is necessary to begin lifting restrictions to jump-start the state’s economy. Data released Thursday showed 1.1 million workers filed for unemployment benefits in the past five weeks, one-fifth of Georgia’s workforce.

Public health experts have warned that reopening for business too soon could spark a resurgence that could be averted with increased testing and a robust campaign to track the contacts of infected people. Georgia, however, has ranked in the bottom 10 of the 50 U.S. states for testing per capita, although it is showing progress.

The owner of three fine-dining restaurants in Atlanta and Athens, Hugh Acheson, said the state is not conducting enough testing for him to safely reopen.

“If I open up fine dining in midtown Atlanta and ... 25 people show up to dinner because I'm brazen enough to do this, that’s not enough to make money and stay in business,” Acheson said.

Mixed messages from White House

Trump said Wednesday that he “disagreed strongly” with his fellow Republican’s intent to restart the Georgia economy, after stressing for weeks the importance of states reopening soon to restart the U.S economy.

“I told the governor of Georgia, Brian Kemp, that I disagree strongly with his decision to open certain facilities,” Trump said. The day before, Trump told reporters that he had faith in Kemp's decision-making. “He knows what's he's doing,” Trump said.

Trump denied reports Friday that he and Vice President Mike Pence had approved Kemp’s decision to reopen businesses.

"I (or @VP) never gave Governor Brian Kemp an OK on those few businesses outside of the Guidelines," Trump tweeted, adding that the governor should “do what is right for the great people of Georgia.”

At the same time, the U.S. president has also denounced stay-at-home orders in Democratic-led states. Last week Trump urged his supporters on Twitter to “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” while Kemp and other Republican governors were planning to lift restrictions.