Georgia’s Experiment in Human Sacrifice
At first, Derek Canavaggio thought he would be able to ride out the coronavirus pandemic at home until things were safe. As a bar manager at the Globe in Athens, Georgia, Canavaggio hasn’t been allowed to work for weeks. Local officials in Athens issued Georgia’s first local shelter-in-place order on March 19, canceling the events that usually make spring a busy time for Athens bars and effectively eliminating the city’s rowdy downtown party district built around the University of Georgia. The state’s governor, Brian Kemp, followed in early April with a statewide shutdown.
But then the governor sent Canavaggio into what he calls “spreadsheet hell.” In an announcement the previous week, Kemp abruptly reversed course on the shutdown, ending many of his own restrictions on businesses and overruling those put in place by mayors throughout the state. That Friday, gyms, churches, hair and nail salons, and tattoo parlors were allowed to reopen, if the owners were willing. As restaurants and movie theaters came back. The U-turn left Georgians scrambling. Canavaggio had spent days crunching the numbers to figure out whether reopening his bar is worth the safety risk, or even feasible in the first place, given how persistent safety concerns could crater demand for a leisurely indoor happy hour. “We can’t figure out a way to make the numbers work to sustain business and pay rent and pay everybody to go back and risk their lives,” he said. “If we tried to open on Monday, we’d be closed in two weeks, probably for good and with more debt on our hands.”
Kemp’s order shocked people across the country. For weeks, Americans had watched the coronavirus sweep from city to city, overwhelming hospitals, traumatizing health-care workers, and leaving tens of thousands of bodies in makeshift morgues. Georgia had been hit particularly hard by the pandemic, and the state’s testing efforts provided an incomplete look at how far the virus continues to spread. That testing capacity—which public-health leaders consider necessary for safely ending lockdowns—has lagged behind the nation’s for much of the past months. Kemp’s move to reopen was condemned by scientists, high-ranking Republicans from his own state, and Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms; it even drew a public rebuke from President Donald Trump, who had reportedly approved the measures before distancing himself from the governor amid the backlash.
Public-health officials broadly agreed that reopening businesses—especially those that require close physical contact—in places where the virus has already spread will kill people. Even so, many other states were quietly considering similar moves to Georgia’s. Most are taking a more measured approach—waiting a bit longer to reopen, setting testing or infection benchmarks that must first be met—but some, such as Oklahoma and Colorado, have already put similar plans in motion. By acting with particular haste in what he calls a crucial move to restore economic stability, Kemp positioned Georgia as the center of a national fight over whether to stay the course with social distancing or try to return to some semblance of normalcy. But it’s easy to misunderstand which Americans stand on each side. Many Georgians had no delusions about the risks of reopening, even if they needed to return to work for financial reasons. Among the dozen local leaders, business owners, and workers, all said they knew some people who disagreed with the lockdown but were complying nonetheless. No one reported serious acrimony in their communities.
Instead, their stories depict a struggle between a state government and ordinary people. Georgia’s brash reopening puts much of the state’s working class in an impossible bind: risk death at work, or risk ruining yourself financially at home. In the grips of a pandemic, the approach is a morbid experiment in just how far states can push their people. Georgians are now the largely unwilling canaries in an invisible coal mine, sent to find out just how many individuals need to lose their job or their life for a state to work through a plague.
As the pandemic raged in the state, some of the local civic leaders questioned the governor’s decision to place the lives of Georgians in jeopardy. Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms went on National News sources to place her displeasure in these ill advised decision:
Mayor Lance Bottoms quote: “We are not tracking them yet, but what I can say, anecdotally, I’m hearing from a lot of restaurant owners and business owners in the city who are saying they will not open yet,” Bottoms said.
Bottoms told Hall that she has formed an advisory council with small business owners and Fortune 500 companies to figure out how and when to reopen businesses once things get back to normal.
“I know one report, there was a hair salon that reportedly booked appointments a few weeks out as a result of the opening. Are you surprised by those who are deciding, even though it’s right now a minority of businesses, are you surprised by those who have decided it is worth the risk to reopen?” Hall asked Bottoms.
“When I saw that hair salon, it made my heart sink. Because we all know what that means. It means that you’re going to have people close to each other, you’re going to leave those hair salons, go back to their families and to their communities and potentially spread this virus. It is so surprising to me that people have such a disregard for the science and the data, especially when you look at the African American community, where there is a barbershop and hair salon on every single corner,” Bottoms said.
The Mayor was absolutely correct and the aftermath of governor Kemp’s decision had the state in an epic-center of death and pandemic sickness for months. Even today that decision has continued to leave Georgia in a virus induced quiremire. Now, the opening of school’s has added to that equation.