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Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp speaks during a news conference at the Capitol building in Atlanta on Monday, April 27, 2020, during the coronavirus outbreak. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)

Concern for health — not greed — is fueling Georgia's economic reopening strategy in the face of criticism and the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, Gov. Brian Kemp said on Monday.

Many, including President Donald Trump, have questioned whether Georgia's data supports Kemp's decision to pursue one of the country's most aggressive statewide reopening strategies, which allowed gyms, hair and nail salons, bowling alleys and tattoo parlors to open with restrictions on April 24. Restaurants could resume dine-in service starting April 27, though bars and nightclubs must remain closed.

More than 75% of Georgia voters support a statewide shelter-in-place to combat the spread of the coronavirus, according to a University of Georgia survey reported in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution last week. That same survey found that roughly 62% of Georgia voters disapprove of Kemp's decision to ease restrictions on restaurants, theaters and close-contact businesses, such as barbershops and nail salons — a move that was denounced by Democratic leaders, prominent local mayors and Trump.

But the governor said he's balancing two public health crises at once — COVID-19 and the ramifications of economic fallout.

"It's hard to shelter in place if you don't have a place to shelter, and that is what's happening in America right now and in Georgia. People can't pay their rent, they can't make their car payment, they haven't been able to make their credit card payment and people do desperate things when they get desperate," Kemp said during a press call on Monday, where he discussed his plan in the context of a new report from FreedomWorks, a conservative and libertarian advocacy group.

The new report gave both Kemp and Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee an "A" grade for their reopening strategies, and Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey received a "B."

According to the report, unemployment in Georgia has increased 4,801.07% — the third highest of any state — as a result of the coronavirus. New Hampshire has seen the largest increase (6,011.75%) and Louisiana the second highest (5,250.58%).

Kemp warned that the negative health effects of the economic crisis can include increased domestic violence, child abuse and suicide rates.

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"I'm not dismissing a second [COVID-19] wave by any means. We continue to prepare for that," Kemp said. "We're buckling in for the long haul. But we also realized, when you shut your economy down, there are social as well as health ramifications of that — big ones."

Georgia has ranked in the bottom nationally in per capita testing, a key component in preventing a resurgence of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Critics have said that Kemp's order to restart some businesses was premature despite a recent bump in screenings.

Kemp said Monday that testing efforts are ramping up substantially with help from the National Guard and new mobile screening aiming to reach more minority populations. In the past week, Georgia completed more than 55,800 COVID-19 tests. The number of tests increased from 127,000 on April 27 to 183,000 on May 4 — according to covidtracking.com.

However, Georgia's percentage of positive cases sits around 15.6 percent, compared to 18.8 percent last week. The federal government and World Health Organization recommend a population's positive cases be below 10%.

Georgia has also expanded its hospital capacity and is receiving promising reports from its hospitals, Kemp said.

"Because of all of that, we are just so much better prepared now than we were a month or six weeks ago," he said. "We have the lowest number of ventilators in use today than we've had in weeks and weeks, our hospital capacity continues to drop with COVID patients. So, you know, we felt like it was good to start back and reopen some of these businesses now, we do have really structured regulations and rules for them to do that."

He said the shelter-in-place order still applies to the medically fragile and older adults, who are more susceptible to dying from COVID-19. Almost half of Georgia's COVID-19 fatalities have come from long-term care facilities, according to Kemp.

Stephen Moore, co-founder of the Committee to Unleash Prosperity, said during the press call that since coronavirus is spread unevenly across the country, the government response should be tailored appropriately. For example, the reopening strategy should look different in places with minimal virus activity compared to hard-hit areas, such as New York City and New Orleans.

"One of the problems we've had with the response — the federal response, and even in states — is there has been too much emphasis on a statewide and a nationwide policy rather than treating the areas that are hardest hit," Moore said.

Kemp said the United States is not built on the government doing everything for everybody, which is why he's trying to enact "reasonable" policies that protect the state and also foster buy-in from residents.

"You've got to keep that balance out there in public health, but also just the reality in the real world," he said, adding that businesses and consumers have a vested interest in making smart decisions about what's best for their health, such as not going somewhere that's doing a poor job social distancing.

"Our message to our citizens right now is we can't let our guard down. This virus is still out there," Kemp said, adding that's why hygiene and wearing face masks remain crucial. "These things are working, and we've got to continue to do that until we have a cure or some medication."

Contact Elizabeth Fite at efite@timesfreepress.com.

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