Bookman: Time for Kemp to side with sparing life over economic pain

On March 12, Gov. Brian Kemp urged Georgians to plan to protect their grandparents from the risk of coronavirus spread. He banned large gatherings Monday and earlier closed schools but he's resisted more restrictions to slow the spread of COVID-19. Stanley Dunlap/Georgia Recorder

“Look at us today,” New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo warned the rest of the country on Monday. “Where we are today, you will be in four weeks or five weeks or six weeks. We are your future.”

If so, that future is frightening, because New York is in a very bad place. Its medical system is in danger of being overwhelmed, with far more incoming patients than hospital beds to put them or personnel to handle them. Cuomo is pleading for delivery of tens of thousands of ventilators, but knows that he has no real hope of getting them. Basic medical supplies – masks, gloves, gowns – are also in desperately short supply, and far worse is yet to come.

And because New York is the first state to reach that crisis stage, supplies for states that hit the crisis point later this spring may become even more scarce.

So ask yourself: What are state leaders in Georgia doing to ensure that we “flatten the curve” and don’t end up in a similar place? The answer is important, because we simply don’t have time. On Tuesday, March 24, Georgia reported it had topped 1,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus for the first time. New York reached that landmark level all the way back on … March 17, just one week earlier. By Tuesday, New York’s caseload had reached 25,665. By Friday it is projected to top 50,000. That’s how quickly this happens.

There are reasons to hope that Georgia’s experience won’t be quite that harsh, but there are also reasons to fear it might. Yes, some of Georgia’s caseload growth can be explained by a surge in testing. But the same can be said of New York. Yes, Georgia is more rural and less dense, which may slow the rate of spread. But Georgia’s rural health-care infrastructure is not exactly robust, and may crumble under stress.

Most importantly, the data aren’t comforting. From Monday to Tuesday, the number of confirmed cases in Georgia rose by 28%. That’s the same trajectory taken in New York, where confirmed cases are doubling every three days.

Here’s another set of worrisome data: On Tuesday, Italy reported 743 additional coronavirus deaths in a single day. Adjusted for population, that’s the equivalent of 4,000 deaths a day here in the United States, or almost 30,000 a week. That’s not where we want to be.

Until now, Gov. Brian Kemp has attempted to walk a fine line between keeping the state economy running and keeping its people safe. I understand and sympathize with that dual responsibility, but I’m not sure that it’s a viable strategy any longer. It’s time to issue a statewide “shelter-in-place” order, leaving only critical businesses open.

Would that be an overreaction? Looking at the data, I don’t think so. And in the words of Kemp’s fellow Republican, Georgia House Speaker David Ralston, “If we overreact, thank God, we overreact.”

“You hate to contemplate a shutdown because you know it’s going to cause economic pain, and it’s going to cause economic pain to people I care about,” as Ralston put it. “But I would prefer that over hearing of them becoming very ill or dying.”

Finally, while you hate to think of partisan politics playing a role in such a life-or-death decision, partisan politics may indeed play a role. At the national level, a frustrated President Trump has already suggested lifting social-distancing restrictions and business closures by April 12, a point at which most health experts believe the pandemic will still be raging. In Trump’s mind, any additional deaths that might cause are more than justified by the increased economic activity.

I don’t comprehend the logic of that approach. Reopening the economy before we have more than ample supplies of tests available to monitor breakouts, before we’ve significantly “flattened the curve,” would be disastrous in human terms and would not achieve the economic rebound that he seeks, not with a rolling death toll in the tens of thousands.

By announcing a statewide shutdown here in Georgia, Kemp would be taking a very different direction than the leader of his party, and that comes with risk. But doctors, nurses and first responders are taking much bigger risks than that, and when the direction taken by that leader is so very wrong, when it endangers the lives of tens of thousands of people, Kemp has no other moral choice.

Jay Bookman
Jay Bookman covered Georgia and national politics for nearly 30 years for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, earning numerous national, regional and state journalism awards. He has been awarded the National Headliner Award and the Walker Stone Award for outstanding editorial writing, and is the only two-time winner of the Pulliam Fellowship granted by the Society of Professional Journalists. He is also the author of "Caught in the Current," published by St. Martin's Press.