The state of Georgia is about to become a giant — and possibly dangerous — lab experiment, and its residents are the guinea pigs.
Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, a Republican, on Monday announced that "due to favorable data & more testing," many of the state's businesses will be allowed to open starting this Friday under "Minimum Basic Operations." The state is moving forward despite falling short of White House reopening guidelines. "As a small business person for over 30 years, I know the impact of this pandemic on hardworking Georgians in every ZIP code and every community," Kemp said. The rest of the country will be watching and waiting to see what the consequences of Kemp's decision might be. No doubt some states will follow suit. Indeed, Texas, Tennessee, and South Carolina have also announced plans to relax quarantine requirements.
So, we may soon settle the question of whether the American economy can truly be reopened while the global coronavirus pandemic still rages. The best guess: Probably not.
The initial reaction to Kemp's announcement was intense criticism. Stacey Abrams, the Democrat whom he defeated in the governor's race in 2018, called the decision "dangerously incompetent," while Vanity Fair dubbed Kemp the "front-runner for country's dumbest governor."
While one widely used model suggests that Georgia hit its peak of daily COVID-19 deaths roughly two weeks ago, medical experts have said that widespread testing for the virus will be required before we can return to any kind of normality. The United States overall still hasn't accomplished widescale testing — and Georgia's testing levels have lagged behind even the national average. That means Kemp doesn't know how many people in his state have been infected, and thus does not know the level of danger he's exposing residents to by reopening businesses. Nobody does.
But there is reason to be skeptical that this move would even do the local economy any good. Many businesses might find it difficult to meet the state's definition of "Minimum Basic Operations," which includes screening workers for fever and respiratory illness, separating workstations by at least six feet, and implementing staggered shifts. And given that Kemp is urging Georgians to shelter in place "as often as you can," there may not be enough customers for business owners to justify making those efforts, even if they can manage to acquire the equipment to do so.
On top of that, will residents really want to go to theaters, or get tattoos, or get a massage, when even asymptomatic carriers of the virus can pass it along, making every close encounter fraught with danger? (Kemp claims he was unaware of this widely reported fact until recently.) While the anti-quarantine protests of the last week do suggest some Americans are ready to rub elbows again — if they ever stopped — most people are afraid that lifting restrictions too soon will fuel the pandemic. We already see evidence for this in states that have not locked down. In South Dakota, Gov. Kristi Noem (R) has refused to issue a statewide stay-at-home order, but the economy is taking hits nonetheless: A Smithfield Foods plant in the state suspended operations, for example, after a cluster of coronavirus cases was found there.
"We took a different path, we did not mandate that our businesses would close, we gave them the opportunity to be innovative, take care of their customers while they protected their employees going through the spread of this virus," Noem said. Still, unemployment claims have risen sharply, and Noem has announced a task force to reopen the state's economy — remarkable, given that it was never officially shut down. That doesn't bode well for Kemp's efforts.
What of the moral implications of Kemp's decision? Is it fair or right to knowingly put workers in the path of danger? No. That's a reality compounded by the fact that Georgia is not ready to face the potential consequences. Abrams, Kemp's former opponent, noted the state has seen the closure of rural hospitals in recent years and faces a doctor shortage. It is possible that by trying to get Georgia back to business, Kemp could create the conditions for a new outbreak of COVID-19 while the local economy remains in the doldrums. That would be disastrous.
The only sure way to get the American economy back up and running is to bring this deadly virus under control. Reopening while the pandemic is still raging won't work, and it will have deadly consequences.
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