MARIETTA — Gov. Brian Kemp said he feels good about Georgia’s current status amid the pandemic, and he has an optimistic outlook as the temperatures cool and flu season begins in earnest.
In an interview with the Marietta Daily Journal on Wednesday, Kemp said shutting down the state and forcing businesses to close a second time is not an option this fall, even if Georgia sees a second wave of COVID-19, although he said, “I never say never to anything, because who knows what’s coming?”
The governor also said he and other experts are looking at hospital capacity and test positivity rates when evaluating the severity of COVID-19 across the state. Kemp acknowledged some regions, including college towns like Athens and Milledgeville, saw spikes of the virus as students returned to schools, but he said those areas seem to be controlling further community spread.
According to Kemp, the current public health state of emergency is unlikely to expire in the near future, but he said the state now has a better idea of how to control the pandemic. While business conditions remain fragile, the governor said he is confident in Georgia’s ability to rebound.
The following interview was lightly edited for clarity and content.
MDJ: After peaking in July, the number of new coronavirus cases in Georgia has declined. Do you expect that trend to continue? And are you concerned as we enter into the fall and cooler weather? What are experts telling you?
Gov. Kemp: I’m concerned every day when we’re in the middle of a pandemic. It doesn’t matter what situation we’re in because there’s just always something that we’re dealing with to try to work through, and every day literally has been different. I will tell you, I feel, and I’ve talked to Dr. (Kathleen) Toomey (commissioner of the Georgia Department of Public Health) about this as well, I feel really good about where we are. I think it’s important to know, regardless of what reports you’re seeing … we’ve had great collaboration with all our hospitals all over the state to really tackle and not have a bed space issue due to COVID. And we haven’t. It’s definitely gotten tight at times. The state’s put a lot of resources into helping with augmenting staff and additional facilities. And we still have those capabilities that are out there, and they’ll be out there in the future, whether we have another spike of COVID or COVID and flu hitting. But I’m very optimistic. And one of the reasons I am, and we’re still not where I’d like us to be, but we’re moving in that direction and it’s going really good.
But I think you have to keep in perspective, right now as we’ve been driving the case numbers down, we’ve also done a lot of big things. … And that’s opening a lot of K through 12 schools. I mean, a lot of them are hybrid, Zoom models. But there’s also a lot of kids, you think about our private schools, they’re all back. Most of them are going in person. A lot of our public schools are as well. You have more systems, like our oldest daughter, Jarrett, she started this week, student teaching in Gwinnett because they now have kids that they’re sending back and they were all virtual. So, you have that dynamic.
You also have the dynamic of our technical college system and the university system going back. And, everybody knows what happened in Athens, but, from what I’m hearing, they’re getting over the hump.
We have two girls there (at UGA), so I’m constantly asking them what’s really happening on the ground. And they’re like, ‘You know, people are behaving, they’re finally realizing they can’t go wild like they did.’ They had a great (Greek) rush. Everybody played by the rules. And then, after rush was over, they all went out and celebrated, and a lot of the sorority and fraternity community got infected. And then other people have been partying.
I think they’re over the hump, and the same thing happened in Milledgeville, Georgia College and Kennesaw State and some other places. And I think we’re getting on the backside of that. If you take that out of the equation with our young people, our rate would be, it’d be really in a good spot.
We talked on our call this morning about the flu season, and we’re expecting the worst, but really hoping for the best. Because we’ve seen in other parts of the world, as they’ve experienced winter during our summer, there’re so many people wearing masks, socially distancing, washing their hands constantly that the flu seasons have been not very severe at all. And hopefully that pattern will trend the same way here, but we’re not banking on that. We’re banking on a normal to moderately severe flu season, just so we’re preparing for what-ifs on the conservative side of hospital bed capacity and making sure that we can take care of people.
Q: Your current executive order extends the public health state of emergency into October. What can we expect when that expires? And do you anticipate any further extensions?
A: I wouldn’t expect that to be expiring any time soon, until we get a vaccine and start getting some sort of herd immunity or the infection rate gets so low that we’re not concerned with that.
It gives Dr. Toomey and our administration a lot of tools to do things very quickly, and to do things that, quite honestly, we just need... So, along with testing, contact tracing, kind of the expense side of things, there’s a lot of really good reasons to keep the public health state of emergency into the near future. So I wouldn’t want to predict when that’s going to end. It’s been very helpful to us.
Q: What metrics are you and other experts using for guidance as you navigate through this pandemic?
A: Well, I think the metrics we’re using, I spoke about hospital bed capacity, that’s probably the one number I watch as close as anything. Obviously, our percent positivity or percent positive rate, the percent of positives of the number of tests that we’re having on a given day. Obviously, we’re watching the mortality rate very closely. Thankfully, that’s gone down like 47% since our peak back in July, so it’s moving in the right direction. I think we’re right at 2% now on that.
The main thing that we’re looking at is not necessarily the number of new cases, because that depends on how many tests you’re giving a day, but that percent positive.
We had a new lab that came on board, and they had a lot of old cases that they had built up, and they dumped them in the system all at one time. So that skewed the numbers.
It’s good to be below 10. Ideally, we’d like to be closer to five, but I think making the progress we’ve made while opening schools and continuing to reopen our economy has been, I will take it all day long. Especially with our hospitalizations. We’re down 56% since our peak in July on hospitalizations.
Q: In the event of a second wave of the virus, what would have to happen for you to implement new restrictions or even shut down the economy again?
A: Well, that is not an option that I’m likely to take. I never say never to anything, because who knows what’s coming? We tried that the first time. I don’t think it helped us a whole lot, quite honestly.
When you look at a lot of the data, a lot of countries and cities and states have done a lot of different things, but I think you can’t really go back and second guess yourself, because we just know so much more now.
We really had two waves. We had the first one and then we had the one after July 4. If you remember, after July 4, everybody was like, ‘we gotta shut it back down again.’
I mean, you had all the epidemiologists that never said a word about people gathering during the protest and civil unrest that we had, but then they came back after the July 4 spike and said, ‘we got to shut the economy down and we can’t have any gatherings.’
I just knew we couldn’t do that again. We knew how to deal with it. We had the hospital surge plan. We put that into place. We’d had that for months, so we were prepared, and we fought through that. And we asked people to help us be part of the solution, not part of the problem by doing the four things for fall — wearing a mask, socially distancing, washing your hands, follow the guidance.
As of right now, we haven’t seen a spike from Labor Day. We’re watching that very closely. We won’t know for sure, probably, for another week or two.
And we won’t even have a need to visit shutting the economy down or pulling back on things. Quite honestly, I think, doing that again, people would revolt. I mean, I think a big part of our challenge now is convincing people.
Because so many people are just over COVID, right? They’re like, ‘We’re over this. We’re tired of it. We don’t care anymore.’ And we’re trying to convince them that you need to keep caring because you can affect somebody that this virus will hammer, and they will lose their life or be on a ventilator for two weeks in a hospital, and you don’t want to do that. So we’re trying to keep people engaged and following the guidance, but also just continuing to work, to keep things rolling and do it in a safe way.
If you look at our day cares and, for the most part, our schools — and we said there’d be infections when schools go back, and you’ve had issues with certain schools — the vast majority has been able to do it. The chancellor keeps telling me that, on university campuses, a lot of students got infected because they weren’t doing the right thing, but hardly any faculty is getting infected because of the guidance that you have and the systems.
We know we’ve had churches where we still have outbreaks, and family gatherings where people are not adhering to the guidance and letting their guard down on holiday weekends.
And if we can continue to have people do that, I’m really encouraged as I go to workplaces. I was in a downtown Atlanta office building (Wednesday), and there’s not many people working in there, but the signage they have and how they’re handling things and temperature checking when you go in, I mean, all those things are very helpful.
Q: You said people would revolt, but I think some of the frustration comes from when you shut things down, people lose their income, their businesses.
A: That’s right, and they’re not going to do that again. I mean, people literally have lost everything. The stories from folks when we opened back up that literally were in tears, they were so thankful. Because they were fixing to lose everything that they had. We fight every day protecting lives, and it’s been a battle every single day, and it will be for the foreseeable future, but we’re also fighting hard on the livelihoods front. And we’ve been, thankfully, very successful.
Our unemployment rate is 5.6 or 5.7%. It’s two and a half, three points below the national average. Our revenues have been holding up, which not many people talk about that right now, but in the (legislative) session when we’re not going to have further budget cuts or maybe we end up being able to come back, and it’d be great if we could fund some stuff back. It’s too early to tell how we hold up through all this.
The projects that we have in our economic development pipeline are unbelievable. If you look at the July and August numbers, they’re better than they were last year, which was a record year. We still have a way to go, but we have so many people that are looking to Georgia to bring new business.
Papa John’s bringing their corporate headquarters. I don’t know where they’re going to go yet, but I think there’s a good opportunity that they may be close by (to Marietta). I think they have about three or four different sites that they’re looking at, but those kinds of things are huge. The Bang Energy deal that we did the other day, they’re going in the old Coca-Cola Nestle building where they were going to do the Keurig cold (brew) cups. They spent $360 million on that building and never moved in, and it’s been sitting there for years. I’m talking seven or eight years, and you’ve got a company that’s going to go in and spend over a hundred million dollars, 700 jobs. That is huge for Douglas County.
We’ve had stuff all over the state. 30% increase in projects outside of the metro Atlanta region. When you look at places like (Cobb) and other areas around the state. Our port had a record month last month.
I talked to two people today that were either on calls I was on, or I had one event this morning, a breakfast, and two people from Chicago. And they were just talking about how disastrous it is in downtown Chicago. I mean, businesses boarded up. People can’t do business there because of civil unrest or the restrictions that they have. They are looking to go to other places. And I think you’re going to continue to see people looking at Georgia and really, quite honestly, the rest of the South where people were willing to open back up and kind of fight through the virus.
We never shut our supply chains down. But you have a company like Kia, they impact 14,000 jobs in west Georgia. They had to shut down, not because of the government, but because their supply chains are up in states like Michigan and other places. They’re not going to allow that in the future. They’re going to tell their suppliers, ‘You got to get somewhere like here that you’re not going to shut down.’ So we are milking that for all it’s worth.
The thing that’s good about that is these jobs that we’re creating, or the private sector is creating and we’re working the project, you think about all these displaced workers that are out there that are tied to convention centers, businesses, restaurants ... business travelers are not coming in on Delta and other things. They have these opportunities in these new industries that are going to be good benefits, good-paying jobs. And that’s going to give our folks opportunities here that, quite honestly, there’s a lot of the states that are not going to be able to offer that opportunity.
All this stuff, it’s kind of connected, and it just rolls from one point to the other.
Q: You took your shots being the first to open business back up.
A: That’s putting it mildly. Like a nuclear weapon hitting me.
It wasn’t just me doing that. Dr. Toomey was a big help in kind of figuring out how we did that, and being willing to not just say no. And she understands the ramifications of, when people aren’t working, they can’t feed their families. And all these nonprofits are seeing that. I mean, we still have 300 National Guard people working every day. And a lot of what they’re doing is helping with food delivery and other things. So it’s a tough environment out there for a lot of people still.
And that’s really where we’ve got to continue to focus on creating opportunities for people that don’t have them right now.
I went and spoke at the cultural arts center in Carrollton to the law enforcement training group over there — all the trainers that train everybody else. They probably had a hundred-something people in the room, but everybody was wearing masks. They were spread out. They had a really good way they were doing the training, and then they were breaking everybody out during most of the day, either going to the range or different breakout sessions so they could spread people out.
Having the corporate world free up, because so many big corporations, they’re like, ‘No travel, no conventions, no association meetings.’ And that really hurts Delta. It hurts the convention center business. It hurts the hotel stays during the week. It hurts restaurants and other service industries. I hear that everywhere. I was at the Four Seasons for a breakfast (Wednesday) morning. I asked the security guy down there. I said, ‘How are you guys doing? Y’all hanging in there?’ He’s like, ‘Man, considering, we’re doing great. We’re full every weekend. It’s just our business travel during the week is down. But we’re fighting, we’re able to hang on.’
I’ve heard the same thing from people in Savannah. A lot of people come in on the weekends, but you just don’t have that convention center business with people there during the week.
Q: You mentioned Papa John’s might be close by. Are they looking at Cobb?
A: I can’t say any more than that.
Q: President Donald Trump will be here Friday. Do you plan on participating in his visit?
A: Oh yeah, yeah, I’ll definitely be with him. We’re just kind of waiting on the details on that.
Q: Nov. 3 is set to be an unusual election taking place amid a pandemic and with many people voting by mail. What concerns do you have about Georgia having a smooth and lawful election process?
A: (That’s) a little bit better question for the secretary of state. I was there, but I’m not now, and it’s a constitutional office. I know (Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger) has been working hard, along with our county folks.
We have great laws in Georgia to have secure, accessible, fair elections. And that’s what we have been known for, despite what some would say.
I did think it was very ironic the other day when Joe Biden’s team was telling people to go register to vote on the online system that I created, and I’ve been accused of not registering people, suppressing the vote and other things. And now you have his campaign sending people to a website that I created when I was secretary of state where people can register to vote 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
I think we’re going to have a good election.
Q: Are you going to spend any time on the campaign trail?
A: Oh yeah. I’ve been on the campaign trail. Obviously, I did a fundraiser the other night with (Cobb legislators) Bert Reeves and Matt Dollar, who were part of that. I’ve been out with Sen. (Kelly) Loeffler many times. Certainly I will be with the president on Friday. I think there will probably be other folks coming down between now and November.
I have done several events with Sen. (David) Perdue, and then working hard on a lot of the legislative races — Rep. (Matt) Dollar and Sen. (Kay) Kirkpatrick. We have a great delegation here. Bert (Reeves) is one of my floor leaders. We’ve done so many good things. When you think about the largest pay increase ever for our teachers and educators, we passed over 30 health care bills dealing with issues like surprise medical billing, the Patients First Act. We’ve put a lot of resources into K through 12 education tackling testing and other things.
The delegation’s had a huge part in our agenda that got unanimous support in the General Assembly, and that’s the fight to end human trafficking. But also legislation to not only go after the bad guys and things like a lifetime ban of a CDL license for people, for truck drivers that are trafficking, but just allowing the victims to be able to expunge their record through a process. That was a bill that we worked on this year.
The survivors, there’s so many great people that are helping them. Basically they’ve been indoctrinated into a cult, and you have to break them out of that so that they’ll start trusting the people that are trying to help them.
But then, when they get through that, a lot of them weren’t being given opportunities because they have a criminal record. And the only reason they’re criminals is because these traffickers were forcing them into these unlawful acts. So now we have a process where people can go through and have that considered and get that expunged. So they’re not being penalized for that when they’re going out to try to find a job and other things.
It’s incredible what the first lady’s been doing, and a lot of the folks that are nonprofit, and they’ve been out there for years in the trenches. We’re just a new voice for that in many ways, and I’ve used the bully pulpit to move some things legislatively. But I think that’s probably one of the few things that all those bills, I’m pretty sure it passed with unanimous support, which is pretty unusual.