Georgia's Reopening Approach Holds Lesson for Other States
Monday, May 4th, 2020
Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp’s announcement that some businesses closed because of COVID-19 would be allowed to begin reopening on Friday, April 24, with appropriate precautions, was welcomed as a timely first step for those financially impacted by the pause in Georgia’s economy. The broader public health state of emergency Kemp declared statewide through May 13 will continue until June 12, he announced on Thursday (April 30).
As expected, some of the finer points of his order are being overlooked. This is not a return to business-as-usual for Georgia firms. There are 20 requirements they must meet, including screening workers’ health, continuing telecommuting and staggering shifts when possible, and keeping 6 feet between worksites.
In legislative terms, this is a “may” not a “shall”: The businesses on this list are not required to reopen, and indeed some have already said they don’t think they can do so safely. That is their prerogative. But at least it’s theirs now.
In Iowa, Gov. Kim Reynolds began talks with state government department heads that focused on how and when to reopen Iowa’s economy. Just as Kemp is attempting to do, Reynolds must balance legitimate economic concerns with equally legitimate health and safety concerns. This means businesses should not be evaluated solely by how essential they are, but also by their ability to protect the health of their employees and customers.
Kemp always insisted the strictest measures on Georgians had to last only as long as necessary and no longer. The data indicate that Georgia has flattened the curve, meaning new cases are developing at a slow enough pace its healthcare providers and resources can handle them. The vast majority of residents in the state are unable to telecommute, and certainly not for weeks and months on end. His order frees Georgians to reclaim their livelihoods and resume putting food on the table by returning to their jobs
Will there be new cases as restrictions are lifted? Unfortunately, there will be. But that would have been true whenever these restrictions are lifted, unless we choose to wait for the entire population to be vaccinated. Estimates put the development, testing and deployment of a vaccine for the coronavirus at more than one year away.
So, when is the right time to reopen Iowa? It is too early to tell in the Hawkeye State. Unfortunately, spikes of the virus are still occurring in a handful of communities. Reopening too soon could render the last five weeks in vain.
Iowans need to remain patient until the curve is in fact flattened. Meanwhile, leaders will have to answer difficult questions, such as how unemployment benefits will be handled for high-risk employees fearful of returning to work. Once the spread has slowed and medical providers are confident they are prepared to handle what comes next though, Iowa must be ready to move on. Studying the approach Georgia is taking will be helpful.
As economies restart around the country, not everybody will rush out; most will use good judgment and begin by returning to patronize the businesses they trust. Americans are a self-governing people. That means exercising some self-restraint and demonstrating what we have learned about social distancing over the past month-plus.
Personal responsibility remains paramount. We are all still required to be smart, vigilant and considerate toward others. We still have to be sensible as we move ahead together. This is an opportunity for Georgians, and eventually Iowans, to show they are up to that challenge.
A version of this commentary appeared in The Des Moines Register on April 26, 2020.