On Monday Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) announced that his state would begin reopening – amid the coronavirus pandemic – this coming Friday. “If we have an instance where a community starts becoming a hot spot, then, you know, I will take further action,” Kemp told reporters. “But right now (I) feel like we’re in a good spot to move forward.”
That makes Georgia – along with South Carolina and Tennessee – one of the first states to begin the process of reopening. And it’s put a major spotlight on both Kemp and Georgia.
To that end, I reached out to Atlanta Journal Constitution ace political reporter Greg Bluestein for his reporting and perspective on Kemp, the situation on the ground and what’s at stake here. Our conversation, conducted via email and lightly edited for flow, is below.
Cillizza: What prompted Gov. Kemp to be the first big state to begin reopening?
Bluestein: It was a pretty sudden shift. At a press conference last week, the governor said it was too early to start planning to reopen the economy even as some other states were taking incremental steps. But within days, he was engaged in initial discussions with business and political leaders about doing just that.
There was a combination of factors that led to his decision.
The Republican cited reports of declining emergency room visits for flu-like illnesses, expanded hospital bed capacity and some projections that show Georgia’s peak may be in the rear-view mirror. He also said documented Covid-19 cases have “flattened and appear to be declining.”
Though he insisted he doesn’t “give a damn about politics right now,” the political pressure can’t be ignored. President Donald Trump, whose endorsement helped catapult him over his Republican rival in 2018, pushed states to begin easing restrictions.
And Kemp was facing urgent calls from some of his conservative allies – and a scheduled “Reopen Georgia” rally Friday at the state Capitol – to start rolling back the limits.
But it’s important to remember Kemp was always torn over these restrictions. He was among the last state governors to impose a statewide shelter in place, instead letting cities and counties institute a patchwork of policies that had some areas under strict curfews and others next door without many.
He reopened Georgia’s beaches earlier this month and refused calls from north Georgia Republicans to seal off state parks. He struggled, visibly, over whether to ban in-person religious services in the run-up to Easter. And his top aide took to Facebook to vent about government “overreach” as Kemp wrestled with the idea of taking stricter measures.
Cillizza: It appears as though Georgia hasn’t met the “gating” criteria from the federal government yet to reopen? So, how are they doing it?
Bluestein: Good question. Kemp said Monday the state is “on track” to meet the gating criteria and that the expansion of hospital bed capacity – including the recent conversion of an Atlanta convention center into a 200-bed hospital – gives him confidence that Georgia can handle a surge of patients.
He also announced plans to ramp up testing and start contact tracing, though Georgia remains far behind other states in per capita testing.
And Dr. Kathleen Toomey, the head of Georgia’s public health department, pointed to a “rolling total that smooths out the curve and makes it easier to analyze” on the state’s website. “We definitely have a plateauing and what appears to be, now, a decline,’ [she said]. “And by the end of the week and certainly by the end of the shelter-in-place, that will be the two-week decline that’s required to remove the shelter-in-place.”
Cillizza: Just a few week ago, Kemp made national news by admitting he just found out about asymptomatic transmission of coronavirus. What are reviews of him in the state like?
Bluestein: Some of the most vocal criticism has come from denser urban areas where Democrats dominate.
Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, one of the state’s top Democratic officials, urged residents to ignore Kemp’s directive. And Stacey Abrams, his opponent in 2018, called his approach “dangerously incompetent.” Others have coined the term “quaran-tat” since tattoo parlors will reopen.
High-profile public health experts are sharply critical of his decision, warning that Georgia’s testing capabilities still aren’t up to snuff and that reopening too soon could trigger another wave of the disease.
But some conservatives quickly endorsed his approach. Both Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan and House Speaker David Ralston joined Kemp for the announcement, and Republican officials in some suburban and rural areas trumpeted the approach.
Marietta Mayor “Thunder” Steve Tumlin posted a new itinerary on Facebook that included visits to a barber shop on Friday and a restaurant on Monday.
And Monroe County Commissioner George Emami, who backed a local measure urging Kemp to speedily open the rural area’s economy, talked up the notion of personal responsibility.
“At the end of the day I believe we are all responsible for our own health risk decisions,” he said. “If you don’t like the governor’s decision you still have a choice to stay home until you feel safe. But there are people who have to work to provide for their families.”
Cillizza: Kemp is seen as a Trump-loving governor who takes his marching orders from the President. Fair?
Bluestein: The governor is a close Trump ally, but it’s not fair to say he takes his marching orders from the Republican. Look no further than the last time we did one of these Q&As, shortly after Kemp defied the president by choosing business executive Kelly Loeffler for an open US Senate seat.
(The headline: Why Georgia’s Republican governor isn’t doing what Donald Trump wants him to do.)
Kemp has, however, praised the President’s response to the pandemic and appeared alongside him during his March visit to the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And unlike some other Republican governors, he’s been careful not to criticize him as he calls for more federal resources.
Cillizza: Finish this sentence: “If this reopening gambit doesn’t work, it means _____________ for Gov. Kemp.” Now, explain.
Bluestein: “If this reopening gambit doesn’t work, it means trouble for Gov. Kemp.”
That’s the simplest way to put it. It’s not an understatement to say that lives are on the line with Kemp’s decision.
Public health experts fear the pandemic that has killed hundreds of Georgians and sickened nearly 20,000 could worsen if residents put down their guard. And they worry that the reopening of dine-in restaurants and close-contact businesses like nail salons and barber shops could encourage just that.
Democrats have not been shy about warning of the dire consequences of Kemp’s decision. State Rep. Bee Nguyen, D-Atlanta, put it bluntly: “This is going to get more Georgians killed.”
Kemp’s allies say he’ll get blamed if there’s a spike in coronavirus cases regardless of whether he took these steps. And the governor has repeatedly stressed that he’s growing more worried about the financial toll of the pandemic.
“These are tough decisions, no doubt, and I’ve had to make many of them. And I can promise you I will have to make more,” Kemp said.
“But we also have got to think about the effects on our economy and these individuals from a mental health perspective, from a physical health perspective and literally for people being able to put food on their tables.”