Augusta Mayor Pushes Back On Georgia's Reopening: 'We're Woefully Behind'

Apr 25, 2020
Originally published on April 25, 2020 1:40 pm

Barbershops, nail salons, gyms and a host of other businesses once considered nonessential are reopening to the public across Georgia, as the state eases its coronavirus restrictions. But even as storefronts begin to reopen, Gov. Brian Kemp's move has drawn a bevy of criticism from across the political spectrum — from President Trump, a fellow Republican, to mayors throughout the state.

Augusta Mayor Hardie Davis Jr., a Democrat, joined NPR's Weekend Edition on Saturday to explain his misgivings about the decision.

"I don't think we're ready to reopen," Davis said. "I'm optimistic that we're going to continue to do the things that we had in place prior to the governor's most recent order — and that is, individuals will continue to shelter in place. If there's no need for them to go outside of their homes, I'm encouraging folks to continue to stay inside so that we can flatten the curve."

Under Kemp's direction, a slew of businesses originally deemed nonessential were allowed to reopen Friday, so long as they carry out "minimum basic operations" and adhere to social distancing and sanitation guidelines.

The move comes just over three weeks after Kemp became one of the last governors in the nation to issue a statewide shelter-in-place order. And in a variety of ways, the state has yet to meet the benchmarks established for beginning Phase 1 of the White House's reopening guidelines. Those benchmarks include being able to demonstrate a two-week decline in COVID-like illnesses.

Davis has expressed his doubts, along with other mayors in the state.

"The success of us getting our arms around COVID-19 is predicated on being able to sufficiently test, to be able to contact trace and then provide treatment, which coincides with the White House's phased plan for reopening," Davis said. "To abandon that process in the middle of the fourth quarter, I think it puts us in jeopardy and in harm's way, in terms of being able to flatten the curve and stop the spread of the virus."

As of Saturday, Georgia has reported more than 22,000 cases of the coronavirus and 899 deaths. Davis said that until the state catches up on testing, it will not be ready to take the steps toward reopening that it has already formally embarked upon.

"I think we're woefully behind," he added, "and it's impractical for us to be open in the state at this early stage."

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Georgia has begun to reopen. Nonessential businesses including barbershops, nail salons, gyms and bowling alleys can now begin to welcome the public even though Georgia still has an upward trend of new cases of COVID-19. Governor Brian Kemp, a Republican, reached the decision to begin reopening despite the White House's own guidelines about when states could relax restrictions put in place to try to slow the spread of coronavirus.

Hardie Davis Jr. is the mayor of Augusta, Ga., in Richmond County on the South Carolina border. He is a Democrat and joins us now. Mayor Davis, thanks so much for being with us.

HARDIE DAVIS JR: Thank you so much, Scott. I'm excited to be a part of NPR WEEKEND EDITION.

SIMON: Well, thank you, sir. Is Augusta ready to reopen?

DAVIS: I don't think we're ready to reopen. At the same time, I'm optimistic that we're going to continue to do the things that we had in place prior to the governor's most recent order, and that is individuals will continue to shelter in place. If there's no need for them to go outside of their homes, I'm encouraging folks to continue to stay inside so that we can flatten the curve.

SIMON: Well, I have to ask, sir, if a nail salon opens, do you send the authorities there to - well, if not shut them down then to appeal to them?

DAVIS: Well, we're making those appeals now in advance as it relates to nail salons, barbershops and hair salons and so forth. While the governor's pushed back the enforcement of his executive order to the locals, the first thing we'll do is warn. If they exceed the requirements around social distancing and if they don't adhere to the warning, then the next step will be a fine. And if they still don't comply with those guidelines and/or recommendations, then the next step, of course, would be shutting the business down. It's my hope and expectation that we never get to that place, but rather out of an abundance of caution, people will continue to take a very intentional and thoughtful approach about preparing before they open their businesses back up.

SIMON: Mr. Mayor, are you and the governor on different pages this weekend?

DAVIS: I'm not so sure we're necessarily on different pages around the global context of we all want to see the economy jump-started. We all want to see lives saved. I think that while we share the concern around we want to be pro-business, we want to see businesses getting back into the swing of things, you cannot abandon the fact that human life and safety is tantamount to having a successful and thriving economy.

SIMON: May I ask, are you preparing for yet another surge in hospitals and medical care facilities with businesses reopening?

DAVIS: Well, I think that we're going to precipitate what potentially could be a surge. When you look at the fact that all of the science experts tell us, Scott, that we haven't reached that peak in Georgia yet, when experts are consistently telling us that the three T's - we're not being able to conduct those things in large volumes, if you will.

The success of us getting our arms around COVID-19 are predicated on being able to sufficiently test, to be able to contact trace and then provide treatment, which coincides with the White House's phase plan for reopening. And to abandon that process in the middle of the fourth quarter I think puts us in jeopardy and in harm's way in terms of being able to flatten the curve and stop the spread of the virus.

When you look at the fact that just in Georgia alone, that as of Friday at noon, we've only conducted 107,000 tests in a state of 10.7 million - almost 11 million people and we've got 22,000 confirmed cases and almost 900 deaths in the great state of Georgia. And when I look at that and couple it with the fact that we still can't do more than 6,000 tests per day, I think we're woefully behind and it's impractical for us to be opening the state at this early a stage.

SIMON: Hardie Davis Jr. is the mayor of Augusta, Ga. Thanks so much for joining us, Mr. Mayor.

DAVIS: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.