Bookman: Kemp’s rush to lift business restrictions both risky and bizarre

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp said his decision to lift coronavirus-related business restrictions this week wasn’t motivated by politics, but our columnist says it also wasn’t motivated by the science or the data, because neither offers justification. Ron Harris/AP pool photo

“I can tell you that I don’t give a damn about politics right now,” Gov. Brian Kemp said this week as he announced his decision to try to reopen Georgia businesses and ease shelter-at-home restrictions.

I suspect that’s true, but only Kemp knows for sure. However, if his decision wasn’t motivated by politics, it also wasn’t motivated by the science or the data, because neither justifies the steps that he has forced the state to take. I have seen no outside epidemiologist endorse his decision, and most have questioned or heavily criticized it as premature. 

Under federal guidelines set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, states should not begin to ease restrictions until they can show a steady, 14-day decline in the number of new cases appearing. Georgia does not meet that test and is weeks away from doing so. At best, the number of new cases appearing daily has plateaued, and may even still be rising.

Look at the data: The number of new positive tests reported at noon Wednesday, April 22, was 836; a week earlier, on April 15, it had been 764. And while one-day totals can be misleading, the longer term trends are similar. From April 8 to April 15, we saw 5,086 new cases. From April 15 to April 22, we saw an additional 5,753 cases. That is not a decline.

Georgia Department of Public Health Commissioner Kathleen Toomey models her mask after a recent press conference. John McCosh/Georgia Recorder

And in Kemp’s press conference, Dr. Kathleen Toomey, Commissioner of the Georgia Department of Public Health, defended the governor’s decision, saying at one point that “If you look at our deaths from COVID, they have declined dramatically.” 

No, they have not. According to figures from Toomey’s own department, the statewide reported death toll for the most recent three-day period of April 19-22 was 149, which ranks among the highest three-day death toll since this pandemic hit the state.

In addition, the list of businesses that Kemp will allow to open Friday is frankly bizarre, as even President Donald Trump suggested Wednesday in what had to be a humiliating rebuke. Tattoo parlors, massage therapists, hair and nail salons? These businesses perform hands-on services requiring close physical contact. Gyms and fitness centers? Even if you can keep the equipment clean and impose social distancing, people exercising in a relatively small space will be inhaling and exhaling large volumes of air, and that’s dangerous. 

Remember what happened to that church choir in Washington state? Forty-five of the 60 members who attended a rehearsal later tested positive for the coronavirus, probably because singing, like exercising, requires exhaling and then inhaling high volumes of air.

As Kemp acknowledged, testing also continues to be a challenge for Georgia, which has one of the lowest rates of testing per capita in the nation. He outlined an ambitious, coordinated strategy for raising the number of tests conducted daily in the state to 15,000, which would put us in the range needed to spot and track new hotspots. But as Kemp also acknowledged, Georgia can and should create the infrastructure to perform that many tests daily, but it does not mean the state will have access to that many test kits.

A month and a half ago, Trump toured the CDC and told us that everybody who wanted a test could get a test, which wasn’t remotely true and remains untrue even today. Vice President Mike Pence told the nation back in early March that we would have 5 million tests available within a week, and six weeks later we still haven’t hit that level. Given that track record, it’s risky building a statewide strategy on the assumption that this time, the federal government is telling the truth when it says tests will be available.

President Donald Trump visited Atlanta’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention March 6 as the coronavirus outbreak worsened. At the CDC he declared “Anybody who wants a test can get a test.” Official White House photo

Maybe the most striking thing about Kemp’s press conference Monday was the fervor of his concern for business and economic loss compared to the concern he expressed for loss of life. Everyone wants this to be over. Everyone yearns for the return of whatever will now pass for normality. And yes, the economic impact has been enormous, and is causing significant heartbreak.

However, the impact of opening a week too early – both on the death toll and economically – is significantly higher than the impact of opening a week later.

We are in this position in part because national leaders were more concerned about protecting the stock market in an election year than in responding to multiple warning signs of trouble, which cost us precious weeks of preparation. How foolish would it be to repeat that same mistake, for the same reasons, reproducing the same kind of tragedy?

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.