Georgia business owners split on Kemp’s decision to reopen economy amid coronavirus

On April 24, Georgia officially opened for business. But with the state hard hit by coronavirus, many business owners and residents question Gov. Brian Kemp’s decision to reopen a state whose economy has been badly hurt by the pandemic. 

The partial reopening allows for restaurants, nail salons, gyms, massage parlors, tattoo shops, hair salons, and other businesses to open, with restrictions.

“Informed by the Coronavirus Task Force and public health officials, ‘Opening Up America Again’ includes three phases to safely reopen and get folks back to work,” the governor said in a statement

“According to the Department of Public Health, reports of emergency room visits for flu-like illnesses are declining, documented COVID-19 cases have flattened and appear to be declining, and we have seen declining emergency room visits in general.”

‘Nothing in science supports it’

But despite the Kemp’s assertions, doctors, business owners, and the president disagree.

“I (or @VP) never gave Governor Brian Kemp an OK on those few businesses outside of the Guidelines. FAKE NEWS! Spas, beauty salons, tattoo parlors, & barber shops should take a little slower path, but I told the Governor to do what is right for the great people of Georgia (& USA)!” President Trump tweeted on April 24.

“I see nothing in science that supports it — zero,” said Dr. Michael Saag of the decision. Speaking to Yahoo Finance, Saag, an epidemiologist at the University of Alabama, Birmingham, said he saw “desperation” as part of the reason behind the decision.

Corey Brooks, right, orders food at a Waffle House restaurant in Savannah, Georgia, on Monday, April 27, 2020. Restaurants statewide were allowed to resume dine-in service with restrictions after a month of being limited to takeout orders because of the coronavirus. (AP Photo/Russ Bynum)

“What disturbs me personally is, I also see politics,” he said. “We can’t really afford to have political undercurrents in these decisions. These are public health decisions that should be based in science. 

John Gianoulidis, owner of Greek restaurant Kafenio in College Park, Ga., agreed. He complied with stay-at-home orders and switched his restaurants to take-out and delivery only. 

Though his business has suffered in the past several weeks, he says he will not be reopening his restaurants even as the governor reopens the state.

“I don’t want to get sick,” he said. “I don’t want my staff to get sick. I don’t want to be responsible for my customers getting sick from someone who is carrying it. It is a responsibility thing for me as much as anything.”

At this point in time, Gianoulidis says he isn’t in the business to make money, but just to see his businesses survive through the pandemic. And he won’t reopen he says, until there is scientific evidence that shows it’s safe to reopen businesses. “Once there is something scientific, or a risk assessment manager comes out or epidemiologist comes out and says that was the reason for this decision to allow us to reopen, I’d reopen tomorrow,” he said.

‘We follow all the guidelines’

Georgia is one of the states hardest hit by coronavirus. 

Currently, the state has over 25,000 confirmed coronavirus cases, with 5,000 hospitalizations and up over 1,000 deaths.

“Right now, there is nothing in science, especially in Georgia — they haven’t even started to flatten the curve, much less go in the other direction,” said Dr. Saag. “You want to see a trend of 14 downward days before we reopen.” 

1920 Tavern Owner Jenna Aronowitz takes the temperature of bartender Shane Goode before the Roswell restaurant opens for sit down meals in Brookhaven, Ga., Monday, April 27, 2020. (Steve Schaefer/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)

Even though some business owners like Gianoulidis have firmly decided to keep their businesses closed, not all are taking that same approach.

Ashley at Peaché Nail Salon in Marietta says that the salon had been closed for a “long time” and they “needed money.” She didn’t provide her last name to Yahoo Finance. Now that they are serving customers again, she says they are “following the safety guides.”

“We follow all the guidelines,” she said. “We have all the equipment, like face masks and shields on the table for everybody. And we make everyone wear capes. We have everything.”

One customer shared that customers were required to have their temperature taken before being admitted to the salon.

Don, the owner of Don’s Barber Shop in Newnan, Ga., has also opened his doors. He called the stay-at-home orders amid the coronavirus pandemic a “scam,” before declining to comment further. 

Rising unemployment

Gianoulidis believes that rising unemployment and its associated costs are part of the reason behind reopening the state. 

“Kemp mandates restaurants reopen, whether I reopen dining rooms or not,” he wrote in a Facebook post that went viral. 

He wrote: “Furloughed staff that is [sic] collecting unemployment insurance have to come back to work or I have to let them go. Their unemployment insurance then goes on my tab. If things blow up again, they are still on my tab not on the states, since they are no longer employed. Guys, this is about screwing the working class and small business, not about helping us.”

Graphic by David Foster/Yahoo Finance

According to the Georgia Department of Labor, roughly 250,000 claims were initially processed last month, with 94% of the claims being filed by employers. Over the course of the last month, the state processed over 1 million claims. 

Even though he filed for business interruption insurance, Gianoulidis says his claim was denied. He says he hopes that lawsuits from bigger companies will open the doors for him to make a claim as well. 

Georgia isn’t alone. Texas has also decided to reopen the state, amid a rising number of coronavirus cases. The state has over 26,000 positive cases, with nearly 700 fatalities.

Movie theaters, malls, and more will be allowed to open on Friday as part of a two-week reopening plan.

Reopening states could increase the death toll in the United States, according to predictive models.

The White House and administration officials often cite the model from the University of Washington, which currently projects a death toll rising to roughly 73,000 people by August. According to the CDC, the current death toll stands at just under 56,000.

Kristin Myers is a reporter at Yahoo Finance. Follow her on Twitter.

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