Some North Georgia officials worry state's COVID-19 reopening plan could put them 'right back where we were'

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp speaks about the COVID-19 virus during a news conference at the Georgia state Capitol on Wednesday, April 8, 2020, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)
Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp speaks about the COVID-19 virus during a news conference at the Georgia state Capitol on Wednesday, April 8, 2020, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

North Georgia officials said Tuesday they're hesitant about Gov. Brian Kemp's aggressive plans to reopen the state's economy.

Kemp announced Monday that many businesses forced to close to slow the spread of the coronavirus will be allowed to reopen as early as Friday.

The new order supersedes any local mandate, and area leaders said they worry reopening the economy and certain businesses is reactionary and could be more harmful in the long run.

Lynn Laughter, commission chair in Whitfield County, said she feels like she's caught between a rock and a hard place. She understands how important it is to reopen the economy, especially in a county that employs thousands in the manufacturing industry.

"My concern is that if we do it too early, and then we start to spike up in cases again, then we'll have to shut down a second time," Laughter said. "I think that's more damaging to the economy here locally than it would be if we said, 'Shut it for another week or two.'"

Laughter's mother, 92, lives in an assisted living facility in Dalton. The commissioner said she knows first hand what it's like to worry for a loved one who is considered at risk.

Several local mandates passed as the state started to slowly shut down as the virus spread. Those local orders won't stand under Kemp's action.

"The order we had until April 30 pretty much doesn't mean a lot right now," Laughter said.

A beauty shop owner in Whitfield County called Laughter and asked to make sure she can open up Friday morning. Laughter gave her the go-ahead after reading through Kemp's latest order, but told the shop owner to follow social distancing rules.

Laughter also said she didn't understand why Kemp didn't wait until April 30, when the state's shelter-in-place order was set to end, to open up certain businesses.

Kemp announced that gyms, hair salons, bowling alleys and tattoo parlors are among businesses that may reopen Friday - as long as owners follow strict social distancing and hygiene requirements. By Monday, movie theaters may resume selling tickets and restaurants limited to takeout orders can go back to limited dine-in service.

"In the same way that we carefully closed businesses and urged operations to end to mitigate the virus's spread, today we're announcing plans to incrementally and safely reopen sectors of our economy," Kemp said at a news conference.

Bars, nightclubs, amusement parks and entertainment venues will still be closed.

Dr. Kathleen Toomey, the state public health commissioner, said at Monday's news conference that Georgia is seeing "a plateauing and what appears to be a decline" in average daily cases of COVID-19.

Toomey also said emergency rooms are seeing fewer flu-like ailments, which was an encouraging sign for Kemp to make the move.

Ringgold Mayor Nick Millwood said Kemp's order could give a false sense of comfort to the elderly and otherwise high-risk residents.

"My first reaction was to encourage our at-risk population to be very careful," Millwood said. "We've got a lot of people in a lot of tough situations. Some can stay home and some can't based on their current situation. The at-risk people have a legitimate reason to be concerned."

Millwood said he would personally encourage people who are at risk "to the extent that they can, disregard [the state] opening up."

Kemp's order urged people in the high-risk population to remain sheltered in place until May 13.

Millwood said he hopes those people will continue to shelter-in-place and to live like they have been for the last month or so, if possible.

As far as how he and his family will act moving forward, Millwood said he plans to continue to do things like order curbside pick-up at restaurants, going into a store one at time and making as few trips to the grocery store as possible.

Millwood added he would have liked to see more testing done across the state before the governor decided to reopen.

South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham tweeted Tuesday that he worried Georgia was "going too fast too soon."

Shannon Whitfield, the sole commissioner in Walker County, was less skeptical about Kemp's orders.

"It's a very tough decision for anyone to have to make," Whitfield said. "I think the governor is in a position where he has the most information, the most data and the experts to advise him. I think we're all going to have go with his leadership and his decisions and allow him to make those decisions on our behalf for what he feels like is best for the state as a whole."

Whitfield said Walker County will start to slowly open government buildings for drive-thru service and will allow animal control services to work at its normal capacity.

Even with the new order in place, local officials are urging people to practice social distancing and to be cautious of the continued spread of the coronavirus.

"I hope people continue to avoid crowds, wash their hands often, wear masks to protect others and are particularly aware of the most vulnerable population," Laughter said.

Whitfield said he doesn't believe Kemp would put the state in a position to jeopardize its economy or its residents.

"Only time will tell how that will play out," he said. "We're just going to have to put our trust in his decision."

Laughter was more worried about what could come from the governor's newest order.

"I really want people to be able to go back to work," Laughter said. "But I just think if we're not vigilant, we're going to be right back where we were a few weeks ago."

The Georgia Legislative Black Caucus, chaired by state Rep. Karen Bennett, D-Stone Mountain, said Tuesday the idea of opening up certain businesses amid a pandemic "without ensuring necessary testing and protection is incomprehensible" and called on the governor to rescind the order "until science and evidence proves that COVID-19 is no longer a threat to our communities."

On the other side of the issue, Dalton Mayor David Pennington thinks Kemp's orders don't go far enough, saying he believes the state shouldn't have been shut down in the first place.

"With the restrictions he has put in place, particularly with restaurants, he's allowing them to open back up but not make any money," Pennington said. "No restaurant can make any money when it's half full."

Pennington has been a vocal critic of the country and state's coronavirus response and a controversial voice on the subject matter. In March, Pennington apologized during an emergency city council meeting for calling dine-in restaurant health concerns "hysteria."

Pennington knows he is in the minority when it comes to the response to the coronavirus outbreak, but said "leaders are aways in the minority."

Pennington believes getting the economy back on track is the most important thing the state and local communities need to do at this point. He thinks Georgia can do that while also protecting the most vulnerable.

"We've got to get people out spending money again quickly," Pennington said. "Businesses haven't lost 10% or 20% of their business, they've lost 100% or 90% of their business. We're in a depression right now. It's just a matter of how long it's going to last"

Contact Patrick Filbin at or 423-757-6476. Follow him on Twitter @PatrickFilbin.

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