'It's just too soon': Trump pushes back on reopening Georgia

Georgie Gov. Brian Kemp's announcement that nonessential businesses could reopen Friday prompted backlash from Democrats and health officials. President Donald Trump also "strongly disagreed" with the Republican governor's decision.

Alex Brandon/AP
President Donald Trump speaks about the coronavirus in the White House on April 22, 2020, in Washington. Despite calls to “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” and other Democratic-led states, Mr. Trump said he disagreed with reopening nonessential businesses in Georgia this week.

President Donald Trump said Wednesday that he “disagreed strongly” with the decision by Georgia's Republican governor to reopen salons, gyms, and other nonessential businesses that had been shuttered to contain the coronavirus, saying, “It's just too soon.”

During the daily White House briefing, the president indicated that while he is in favor of states reopening their economies, Gov. Brian Kemp is moving a little too fast.

Mr. Kemp announced earlier this week that as of Friday, elective medical procedures could resume in Georgia, and that barbershops, nail salons, and gyms could reopen with restrictions. Limited in-restaurant dining is scheduled to resume on Monday.

The announcement immediately prompted pushback by Atlanta's Democratic mayor, other political opponents, and health experts who warned that the state has not yet taken the steps recommended under federal guidelines the Trump administration issued for reopening the economy safely.

Georgia ranks in the bottom 10 U.S. states in per capita testing for the coronavirus. Officials are struggling to increase testing for new infections and boost tracking of those in contact with infected people. If that isn't done, health officials said, the state risks a quick rebound of COVID-19.

“The virus moves faster than government does,” said Dr. Jennifer Nuzzo, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “So if I had to bet on who would come out of the gate faster, it would be the virus.”

Mr. Trump has been stressing the importance of reopening states sooner rather than later to get the U.S. economy back on track. Just last week, the president urged his supporters on Twitter to “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” and other Democratic-led states from stay-at-home orders – at the same time that mostly Republican governors like Mr. Kemp were taking steps to lift those restrictions.

But on Wednesday, Mr. Trump indicated that Mr. Kemp's aggressive reopening strategy went beyond the recommendations of a three-phase plan the administration unveiled last week. The plan advises 14 days of declining new infections and robust testing of health care workers before proceeding to a phased opening of the economy.

“I want him to do what he thinks is right," Mr. Trump said. "But ... I think [opening] spas and beauty salons and tattoo parlors and barbershops in Phase One ... it’s just too soon.”

The president added that “there's a lot of good feeling between myself and Brian Kemp. I like him a lot. ... I know the people from spas and beauty parlors, tattoo parlors. Bikers for Trump – a lot of tattoos. I love them. I love these people. And barbershops, these are great people. But you know what? Maybe wait a little bit longer until you get into a Phase Two."

Not long after Mr. Trump’s remarks, Republican U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham of neighboring South Carolina issued a statement saying he agreed with the president and that while he has “great respect for Governor Kemp ... the best path forward is to follow the guidelines set by President Trump and his team.”

Mr. Kemp responded in a tweet Wednesday night that he appreciated Mr. Trump's guidance but would move forward with his plan.

“Our next measured step is driven by data and guided by state public health officials,” the governor said. “I am confident that business owners who decide to reopen will adhere to minimum basic operations, which prioritize the health and well-being of employees and customers.”

In pushing his plans to jump-start the state's economy, Mr. Kemp stressed that the state was ramping up its virus testing. The number of tests administered in Georgia had plateaued between 3,500 to 4,000 a day. However, on Wednesday, the state reported almost 6,000 tests over 24 hours.

State Public Health Commissioner Kathleen Toomey said the state will expand its ability to “aggressively” trace the contacts of infected people.

“This is the way we’re going to keep spread from occurring, even as we begin to gradually open up the state,” Mr. Toomey said.

The state hasn’t said how many people are tracing contacts now, how many it seeks, or how quickly the state’s 18 public health districts can ramp up.

As of Wednesday, more than 21,000 people in Georgia had been infected with the virus and more than 840 had died, according to the state Department of Public Health.

Mr. Toomey and Mr. Kemp said the state will use a cellphone app to track infected people, and ask those people to voluntarily share cellphone data so that the state can find other contacts.

Many businesses and workers have expressed reservations about Mr. Kemp's plan.

“I understand everybody wants to get back to normal," said Dewond Brown, a line cook who was laid off last month. “But you hear the medical people say every day it’s not time yet.”

State Sen. Nikema Williams, chairwoman of the Democratic Party of Georgia, weighed in on the situation Wednesday after the president's briefing, remarking, “You know it’s a serious failure when Donald Trump, whose failed leadership is responsible for how badly this crisis is hitting America, distances himself from his crony Brian Kemp, who is endlessly determined to make this crisis as painful as possible for Georgians.”

This story was reported by The Associated Press. Mr. Bynum reported from Savannah, Georgia. AP reporters Sudhin Thanawala and Ben Nadler in Atlanta and Kimberly Kruesi in Nashville, Tennessee, contributed to this report.

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