By Beau Evans
Capitol Beat News Service
With only a day left on the clock, Gov. Brian Kemp has not revealed whether or not he plans to extend Georgia’s shelter-in-place order before it expires.
The governor’s office was expected to make an announcement on the order Wednesday, but he will instead hold off until Thursday, his communications director, Candice Broce, confirmed.
Kemp is weighing whether and how to relax mandatory social restrictions in place since April 3 that have required people to remain at home except for essential errands like grocery runs and to exercise, and for most businesses to limit their operations only to levels that will keep them financially afloat.
The order has already been extended once since it was first issued on April 3. It is set to expire at 11:59 p.m. Thursday.
In recent days, the governor has allowed many close-quarter businesses like the dine-in areas of restaurants, gyms and barbershops to reopen following weeks of mandatory closures. Other businesses including bars, nightclubs and amusement parks must still stay closed.
Kemp has drawn fire from many health experts and local elected officials since last week over his decision to let those businesses reopen. Critics have accused him of disregarding serious health and safety implications for Georgia residents, particularly the elderly and chronically ill, by relaxing social restrictions as they are just beginning to show results.
Many local doctors and health experts worry that ending the statewide shelter-in-place could cause a spike in positive COVID-19 cases, leading to a second wave of community outbreaks – though it is impossible to predict how severe that increase might be.
“You can just predict there will be an increase in cases,” said Dr. Ashley Register, a physician in Cairo. “And I think everyone’s frightened.”
Others expect most Georgians will simply continue to keep their distance from each other in public and delay reopening their businesses for the time being, despite the financial pain.
Dr. Karen Kinsell, a physician in Fort Gaines, said many people in her small-town Southwest Georgia community have told her recently “that it’s a horrible idea and they’re not going out anyway.”
“But there is always going to be somebody that doesn’t listen,” Kinsell said Wednesday. “It only takes a few people to see some really bad things again.”
To date, Kemp has defended his decision as a voluntary relief valve aimed at giving Georgia business owners the option, not a mandate, to reopen after weeks of forced closures.
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 as well as the dire financial situation facing many business owners who have been shuttered for weeks.
“We are looking at depression-like unemployment,” Kemp said. “It has all tumbled off a cliff like it has in every state. But we will come back, and we will come back even stronger.”
Kemp and the state’s public health commissioner, Dr. Kathleen Toomey, have also cited models indicating that the spread of the virus is slowing.
On Monday, 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 “gating” 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.
However, models now being published and updated daily on the state Department of Public Health’s website are in many ways at odds with other modeling done by local university researchers, said Dr. Rebecca Mitchell, an epidemiologist and bioinformatician who is a visiting assistant professor at Emory University.
One study, released this week by the University of Georgia’s Center for the Ecology of Infectious Diseases, estimated that relaxing 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.
Mitchell, who is running as a Democrat for the District 106 seat in the Georgia House, said Wednesday the severity of any future coronavirus outbreaks will depend on how much leeway Georgians will have to interact with each other.
“The more relaxed we are and the more willing people are to have face-to-face interactions with people, the stronger that new wave will be,” Mitchell said. “It’s just the size of the epidemic that we’re really talking about when we’re changing some of the social distancing requirements versus all of them.”