On April 20, Gov. Brian Kemp announced he will begin easing restrictions meant to curb the spread of COVID-19. Gyms, barbershops, tattoo parlors, hair and nail salons, bowling alleys and massage centers can reopen on April 24, while restaurants and movie theaters can reopen on April 27. Kemp’s decision reflects the pressure being placed on state governments not to extend lockdowns any further than necessary. President Donald Trump set guidelines for governors to ease restrictions, and conservative activists across the country have defied stay-at-home orders to protest the restrictions.
Frustration with physical distancing and fear of the economic consequences are understandable but misplaced. As of April 16, nearly one million Georgians — almost one in 10 — have filed unemployment claims since March 14. Across the country, nearly a third of apartment households did not pay their rent within the first five days of April, according to the National Multifamily Housing Council.
However, it would be disastrous — from both an economic and public health standpoint — to reopen the economy before the virus is under control. In the meantime, the state of Georgia and the federal government can relieve the burden of physical distancing by suspending debt payments, instituting emergency cash payments and paying workers’ wages to avoid layoffs and furloughs.
As of press time, the virus has infected 21,102 Georgians and killed 846 — and that could be understating the true death toll. Delays in opening new hospital space in hard-hit Albany show the difficulties facing Georgia’s health care infrastructure. It’s going to take time for hospitals to be ready for the peak number of patients even if the lockdown continues. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, warned on April 14 that any decrease in existing measures will result in more infections in an interview with the Associated Press.
If Georgia lifts restrictions before the necessary testing and treatment infrastructure are in place, infections will overwhelm hospitals and people will die unnecessarily. Testing must be near-universal so health authorities can track the spread of the virus. South Korea has been able to contain the virus without extensive lockdown measures by testing hundreds of thousands of people, as well as by making available real-time information about the virus’ spread in local-communities.
The purpose of lockdowns in the United States is to buy time to scale up testing so we can track the virus’ spread. To begin easing restrictions before that testing infrastructure is in place will only make it harder to contain the virus in the future.
Some, like State Rep. Mark Newton, have said that states and localities should ease restrictions to avoid the worst of the economic pain.
However, the choice between economic survival and an effective public health response is a false one. If restrictions are lifted early and infections spike, Georgia’s health care industry will struggle to treat everyone, workers will be exposed to infection en masse and businesses won’t have the confidence to resume normal activity. According to a survey conducted by the Harris Poll from April 18-20, only 13% of Americans believe they can return to work and life as normal within one to two weeks.
A nationwide strike wave has already begun among essential employees, health care workers and the gig economy. If more of Georgia’s workers are asked to risk their lives for the sake of easing restrictions, expect that wave to intensify.
The state of Georgia can and should work to avoid the worst economic effects of the pandemic, but it should not risk a surge of infections pursuing a false notion that lifting restrictions will allow everything to go back to normal. Kemp should wait to begin reopening the economy until the number of cases has declined and Georgia’s health infrastructure is better able to test, trace and treat COVID-19.