There are a lot of reasons the coronavirus has surged across the southern United States, according to Gov. Brian Kemp. He doesn’t know all of them, but he does know this: “The spread that you’re seeing, it’s not because we reopened early.”
In a brief but wide-ranging interview with the MDJ on Wednesday, the governor touched on a renewed effort to get people to take the virus seriously, a lawsuit he filed against the city of Atlanta, reopening schools and the recent passing of Georgia’s civil rights icons.
Kemp said cases of the virus began inching back up right around Memorial Day.
“People let their guards down,” he said.
To fix that, the governor announced a new initiative. He’s calling on Georgians to do four things in four weeks: social distance, mask up, wash hands and follow the guidelines in the several executive orders he has issued since the start of the pandemic.
“We just got to hit reset, get everybody to hunker down here for four weeks,” Kemp said. “Those have worked well for us in the past to help us flatten the curve and slow the spread. And we know that they’ll do that again. Unfortunately, those things are not getting enforced very much.”
Kemp said public health officials have traced multiple infections to parents throwing backyard graduation parties for their children and churches failing to follow state safety guidelines.
The governor said protests could have also played a role in transmission by giving young people the impression “that it’s fine for you to get out and move around again, you don’t need to worry about gathering bans and other things.”
Public health officials have not ruled out the possibility the virus spread among those protesting police brutality and the death of George Floyd this spring, but new infections continue to drop in some states that have seen some of the largest protests, such as New York.
Kemp said the surge could not, however, be attributed to his decision to lift a shelter in place order and reopen certain nonessential businesses at the end of April.
“We reopened well over two months ago,” he said. “And you know, our cases declined after reopening. It wasn’t until we got to the Memorial Day weekend, the protest started and the start of summer that we really started seeing our cases go back up.”
He rejected the description of his reopening plan as “aggressive.”
“I think we were very thoughtful about how we opened,” he said. “We got to learn to live with this virus.”
He has not considered asking certain nonessential businesses to close again — but he hasn’t ruled it out, either.
“I’m never saying never to anything,” he said before adding that the media’s fixation on whether or not he would ask businesses to close again has been “a little frustrating.”
“The reason that we shut down in the first place — and other states shut down a lot more than we did — was to give us time to build our hospital bed capacity, to supply (them) with (personal protective equipment) and ventilators and all the things that we need — needed,” he said.
That has been a success, he said.
“Because of those sacrifices everybody made early on, we developed this hospital plan, we have plenty of ventilators, we have plenty of (personal protective equipment),” he said. “There’s issues with testing, but, you know, we’re working on that.”
Chief executives in charge of metro Atlanta’s hospital systems have made clear to him they have surge capacity and do not need to cancel elective surgeries, as they did early in the pandemic.
As a matter of fact, they can’t. Hospitals took a massive financial hit due to their decision to free up hospital beds by canceling elective surgeries, and hospital officials told the governor “they can’t go through what they did when we sheltered in place and survive,” he said.
KEMP VS. BOTTOMS
The governor has made clear no local government could impose pandemic-related measures any stronger or weaker than his own.
Nevertheless, some mayors, such as those in charge of Savannah and Atlanta, have issued executive orders requiring residents to wear masks. Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, a vice presidential contender, even ordered all but essential businesses closed July 10.
When Kemp extended several emergency measures earlier this month, he included a provision explicitly outlawing mask ordinances. Two days later, he sued Bottoms and the Atlanta City Council.
The state asked a judge to overturn Bottoms’ orders that are more restrictive than Kemp’s, block her from issuing any more such orders, instruct the City Council not to ratify Bottoms’ actions or adopt any ordinances inconsistent with Kemp, to force Bottoms not to make any public statements claiming she has authority that exceeds Kemp’s, and to require city officials to enforce “all provisions” of Kemp’s existing orders.
Bottoms was later quoted as saying he had sued her and not the mayors of other cities in Georgia “perhaps because they were led by men, or perhaps because of the demographics in the city of Atlanta.”
Kemp told the MDJ Wednesday that was “probably one of the most ridiculous statements that I’ve ever heard since I’ve been governor of Georgia.”
He said his reason for singling her out for a lawsuit was simple.
“The reason that we sued Mayor Bottoms and the city of Atlanta is because she started to start closing down our economy,” he said.
SCHOOLS & SPORTS
The governor is also adamant that children return to school for the 2020-21 school year — in-person. If they don’t, he continued, the results could be catastrophic.
If children have to stay home, parents have to stay home. If parents stay home, many won’t be able to work. If they don’t work, tax revenues plummet, teachers get laid off, public safety funding goes down.
“It’s just a snowballing effect,” he said. But the worst thing, he added, would be the long-term consequences on students’ mental health and development of having them learn virtually.
Kemp said the research shows that kids rarely get seriously ill from the virus, and that districts should be able to reassign teachers who are “medically fragile” by having them teach students who opt for virtual learning, for example.
The Marietta and Cobb school districts initially offered parents the option of sending kids back to school in-person or virtually. They canceled those plans last week, citing increased turnaround time for tests.
“I became greatly concerned that any school-based risk mitigation strategies would become useless if we didn’t have the simple ability in a timely manner to know when somebody may have both been tested and determined to be positive,” Marietta City Schools Superintendent Grant Rivera said last week.
On Monday, Kemp announced a partnership with a North Carolina-based company, Mako Medical. Mako will provide supplies and services for 10,000 tests per day, an increase that should allow Georgians to receive their test results within 48 hours.
“We’re ramping that up very quickly,” Kemp said Wednesday. “We just signed the contract on Monday. So it’s obviously going to take a day or two to get that up and running, but it’s going to be coming very quickly.”
Kemp also said the state has provided school districts with “hundreds of thousands of masks, if not millions”; thermometers; hand sanitizer; and cleaning equipment.
JOHN LEWIS & C.T. VIVIAN
On Wednesday, the governor attended an event at the Capitol honoring civil rights icon C.T. Vivan. Vivian and Congressman John Lewis, another titan of the civil rights era, died Friday.
“It’s amazing to really think about what all they went through,” Kemp said.
“Specifically regarding C.T. Vivian, I had the opportunity to serve on a panel talking about voting rights with him during the 50th anniversary of the signing of the civil rights legislation,” the governor recalled. “It’s hard to imagine that such a nice man was such a strong fighter. But that’s what they did.”
— The Associated Press contributed to this report.