Connecting state and local government leaders
Gov. Brian Kemp has taken the most aggressive measures of any state leader to lift restrictions imposed by the pandemic. Black community leaders say he’s being reckless.
Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp has come under fire for his decision to allow businesses to reopen and to lift the state’s shelter-in-place order as new data indicates that black residents make up the overwhelming share of those hospitalized in the state due to the coronavirus.
The data compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that black residents comprise 80% of Covid-19 hospitalizations in Georgia. The study, which surveyed eight Georgia hospitals, seven of which were in the metro Atlanta area, confirmed early speculations that black Americans would be disproportionately affected by the pandemic.
Kemp’s decision to gradually reopen businesses in the state and lift restrictions on individuals has faced backlash from black community leaders. The NAACP of Georgia issued a statement last week calling for state leaders to “work on behalf of all Georgia citizens … especially its most vulnerable” by keeping the shelter-in-place order and business closures intact. Stacey Abrams, who lost to Kemp in the governor’s race last year, called the decision “dangerously incompetent.”
Rev. Jamal Bryant, an influential pastor of the New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Lithonia, Georgia, posted a video to Facebook last week criticizing Kemp’s decision. In his speech, which has garnered nearly two million views, he said that Kemp was leading African Americans “to the slaughter” by reopening the state. "I shudder to think what would be the thought if in fact those who would be stricken by Covid-19 were overwhelmingly ... rural white farmers," he said. "Would in fact the same precedent take place? I say not."
In a statement released Thursday, Kemp said that “the health and wellbeing of Georgians are my top priorities.” A representative from the governor’s office declined a request for further comment regarding criticism from black community leaders.
The CDC study's authors emphasized that public officials should not discount racial disparities during the pandemic. “It is important to continue ongoing efforts to understand the reasons for these racial disparities, including the role of socioeconomic and occupational factors in transmission," they wrote. “Public officials should consider racial differences among patients affected by COVID-19 when planning prevention activities."
Kemp began revising the mandatory closures for businesses on April 23, allowing for a piecemeal reopening of the state’s economy. Beginning on April 24, businesses like gyms, barbershops, nail salons, spas, tattoo studios, and bowling alleys were allowed to reopen, provided that workers were screened for fever and respiratory symptoms, wearing masks and gloves, and staying at least six feet apart. On Monday, April 27, the state allowed theaters and dine-in restaurants to reopen, as long as businesses limited patrons to 10 per 500 square feet of space.
The last of the mandatory closures for businesses like bars, nightclubs, amusement parks, and concert venues, as well as the state’s shelter at home order, expires on Thursday night.
As of Thursday morning, the state has 25,897 confirmed cases of Covid-19 and 1,101 deaths. With these numbers still rising and testing rates amongst the lowest in the nation, public health officials dispute that the state is prepared to reopen and told residents that they should still employ caution when venturing outside. The majority of Georgia voters—62 percent—disapprove of Kemp’s decision to ease restrictions on businesses and photos from businesses that reopened this week showed that customers were sparse. Even so, the state saw a spike in cases over the weekend after the first business reopened last Friday
At a Tuesday press conference, Kemp said that the state has been successful in containing the coronavirus and encouraged residents to support local businesses that have been reopened. “With favorable data and approval from health officials, we took a measured step forward by opening many shuttered businesses throughout Georgia for limited operations,” he said. “There are differing opinions on how best to tackle COVID-19 … But I can promise you this: there is more that unites us than divides us. We all want to protect our families and our neighbors. We all want to emerge from this pandemic safe and victorious.”
Local officials have also joined in the chorus signaling their dismay over Georgia’s reopening. Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance-Bottoms penned an op-ed in The Atlantic on Thursday, writing that that reopening is “irresponsible and could even be deadly.”
“Our hospitals may not be stretched to capacity, but that does not mean we should work to fill the vacant beds,” she wrote. “We should also recognize that many of the kinds of businesses that are reopening are especially popular in African American neighborhoods, where barbershops and hair salons are ubiquitous. This concerns me because we continue to see much higher rates of infection and death occurring among African Americans than in other communities.”
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Emma Coleman is the assistant editor for Route Fifty.