Kemp lifts statewide stay-home order, shifts focus to medically fragile

Gov. Brian Kemp announced a statewide shelter-in-place order at an outdoor press conference in early April and has now lifted much of it starting May 1. The Republican governor announced his decision Thursday afternoon and urged people “to continue to stay home whenever possible.”John McCosh/Georgia Recorder

Gov. Brian Kemp will let the clock run out on his order for most Georgians to stay home during the COVID-19 crisis, but shelter-in-place restrictions for the medically fragile will continue on through at least mid-June.

Kemp eased restrictions on healthy homebound Georgians after recently letting nail salons, restaurants, bowling alleys and other once-shuttered businesses reopen their doors with limitations in hopes of reviving the state’s economy.

And he says his attention will shift back to older residents, residents of long-term care facilities, people with chronic lung disease and others who are thought to be particularly vulnerable to the novel coronavirus.

“That is that vulnerable population that we got to continue to hunker down on, watch out for and support that industry if they have health care workers that go down to the virus and can’t come work,” Kemp told reporters earlier this week.

He has also said this is why the governor’s mansion is currently off limits for tours even as much of the rest of Georgia reopens: The docents are “medically fragile and very elderly people.”

Still, the Republican governor – who announced his decision Thursday afternoon in a video message posted to social media – urged people “to continue to stay home whenever possible.” His statewide shelter-in-place order had been in place since April 3.

Specifically, Kemp’s stay-home order for the medically fragile will now run through June 12, which is when his public health emergency declaration will also now expire. The governor has ordered businesses to follow existing guidelines for social distancing and sanitation through at least May 13.

He will also continue to require strict rules at long-term care facilities – including a ban on visitors – and will continue to rely on the Georgia National Guard to assist with testing among these fragile populations.

The company that owns Atlanta’s Lenox Square Mall says it plans to open doors to customers Monday for the first time in weeks. John McCosh/Georgia Recorder

Some businesses, like bars and live performance venues, must remain darkened. There is also still a ban on large gatherings that cannot accommodate social distancing, according to the governor’s office. But much of the rest of the economy is returning to business, with some malls – like the North Georgia Premium Outlets in Dawsonville  – planning to open Friday.

Kemp’s Thursday announcement – which was largely expected – found support among a pair of key Republican state leaders, Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan and House Speaker David Ralston.

“Speaker Ralston supports the Governor’s extension of the public health state of emergency declaration which allows important programs like the National Guard’s involvement in nursing homes and COVID-19 testing to continue,” said Kaleb McMichen, the speaker’s spokesman. “He joins with the governor in asking all Georgians, particularly those who are medically fragile or elderly, to take sensible precautions to guard against the spread of the virus.”

But his decision was met with searing criticism from those who say the governor is leaping ahead of wary public health officials and prematurely easing restrictions designed to slow the spread of the virus.

As of Thursday, there were more than 26,000 positive cases of COVID-19 in Georgia, and nearly 1,200 people had died.

“It is reckless and irresponsible for Kemp to use Georgians as the guinea pigs in a public health experiment that will go wrong,” state Sen. Nikema Williams, who chairs the Georgia Democratic Party. “Today’s decision will have consequences — for our overworked health systems, for our struggling essential workers, and for our lives.”

Kemp’s Democratic rival, Stacey Abrams, quickly said it’s too much too soon.

“Georgia is not ready to reopen,” Abrams said on Twitter. “Kemp’s callous decision defies science, facts and logic. The rush to return to a normal that cannot exist hurts Georgians, especially our black and brown communities and low-wage workers who have no choice.”

David Shafer, chairman of the state Republican Party, came to Kemp’s defense Thursday.

“The point of ‘flattening the curve’ was to prevent our hospital infrastructure from being overwhelmed, not to keep the entire population confined to their homes until every business is bankrupt or nationalized and all private-sector workers are jobless and on welfare,” Shafer said.

President Donald Trump has also criticized the governor’s decision to allow businesses like salons and spas to reopen before meeting the White House guidelines for opening. Kemp, though, has described his approach as “measured” and says he is following the advice of his public health officials.