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How some local businesses responded as restrictions lifted statewide
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Funtastik! Family Entertainment Center owner Bud Lunsford bowls a frame Friday, April 24, 2020, shortly after opening for business. Bowling Alleys can now open again under Georgia Governor Brian Kemp's new state guidelines. - photo by Scott Rogers

Debbie Love was ready to reopen Gainesville's bowling alley after it had been closed for a month because of COVID-19.

“When you have a business, you need to be open all you can,” said Love, who helps run FunTastik! Gainesville Bowl off Browns Bridge Road in Gainesville.

FunTastik! is taking necessary precautions, Love said. A family of up to six people can bowl in one lane, “and then to maintain that 6-foot minimum spacing, what we’re doing is skipping the entire next lane,” Love said. “That would actually be more than 6 feet (apart).”

Bowling alleys were part of a large group of non-essential businesses allowed to reopen April 24 under new state guidelines. The group also includes hair salons, barbershops, fitness centers, tattoo artists, massage therapists and personal trainers.

Several were open around Hall County, but a huge number remained closed with signs on front doors explaining the reason — the coronavirus pandemic. Parking lots were empty in front of many gyms, hair salons and other businesses.Social distancing “is impossible to do in our line of work,” said Iliana Bates, who owns Genesis Massage in Gainesville with her husband. “It’s too risky, and I feel it’s too soon. We trust the advice of our local health care professionals over that of our politicians, and that’s why we will not be reopening at this time.”

Emilie Cook, who runs Find Your Center-Yoga Studio in Gainesville, said she would not reopen until Georgia sees 14 days of decreased cases and “until there is adequate testing.”

“Honestly, I’m not sure I’ll be comfortable opening until the hospital has enough (personal protective equipment) to protect their workers.”

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Find Your Center Yoga in Gainesville is not opening Friday, April 24, 2020, as Gov. Brian Kemp allows certain businesses, including gyms, to reopen. A note on the door explains the owner's decision. - photo by Scott Rogers

Personal trainer Kat von Hacke said she has stopped her business — which includes traveling to clients’ homes — “until the hospital states it’s safe for our community to go back to work.”

That decision equals a financial hit.

“We are reduced to a single income and are making do,” she said. “My husband is an essential worker, and we are blessed for that.”

Questions also are swirling as to what the move means for workers and jobless benefits.

One of the key concerns is whether workers lose benefits if they feel like it’s not safe to return to a business that is reopening.

Employers “don’t have to cut off unemployment, (they) are not being required to cut off unemployment,” Georgia Labor Commissioner Mark Butler said Thursday, April 23.

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Georgia Labor Commissioner Mark Butler speaks April 23, 2020, during a virtual press briefing. - photo by Jeff Gill

“Nobody’s telling anybody to do that. We have purposely set the system up to where (businesses) can bring workers back slowly, and continue to file partial claims for them.”

Butler encouraged employers and employees “to work together” as businesses consider reopening.

“I would hate to know that an employer would have a blanket statement that (employees) need to come back to work and not have any consideration (for employees),” he said.

Employees “may have some health issues, and there are some (unemployment) rules out there that have to do with an individual and whether they need to continue to stay at home,” Butler added.

Workers at businesses that choose not to reopen can still draw unemployment, he said.

Kemp’s easing of restrictions has drawn widespread, heavy criticism, including from President Donald Trump.

Speaking at a daily White House briefing Wednesday evening, Trump said he told Kemp he had misgivings over the governor's plan, but would not stand in his way. 

"The people of Georgia ... have been strong, resolute, but at the same time he must do what he thinks is right," Trump said of Kemp, a Republican. "I want him to do what he thinks is right. But I disagree with him on what he's doing. ... But I think (opening) spas and beauty salons and tattoo parlors and barbershops in phase one ... it's just too soon."

Kemp said earlier Wednesday he has been balancing public health and economic concerns in making decisions about reopening.

Although many businesses never closed, the governor has said it was imperative to begin easing his state’s economic suffering by allowing others to resume work. The Georgia Department of Labor said 1.1 million workers — about one-fifth of the state’s workforce — filed for unemployment since the crisis started.

Two administration officials told The Associated Press that Trump and Vice President Mike Pence repeatedly told Kemp they approved of his aggressive plan before the president bashed it publicly earlier this week. Trump denied that in a tweet as businesses reopened.

“I (or @VP) never gave Governor Brian Kemp an OK on those few businesses outside of the Guidelines. FAKE NEWS! Spas, beauty salons, tattoo parlors, & barber shops should take a little slower path, but I told the Governor to do what is right for the great people of Georgia (& USA)!” the president said in the tweet.

Under the new guidelines, theaters, private social clubs and restaurant dine-in services will be able to operate beginning Monday, April 27.

Bars, nightclubs, amusement park ride operators and live performance venues will remain closed, the governor said.

Kemp’s moves, in effect, relax his shelter in place order, which had been set to end April 30.

That move allowed people to leave home only for essential activities or travel. As part of that order, fitness centers, theaters, salons, bars and nightclubs were required to close. Restaurant dining rooms had to close, although they could provide delivery, drive-thru or takeout service.

“Our No. 1 concern is keeping people healthy and protecting them, but No. 2, there are economic concessions that come along with that, putting so many people out of work,” Kemp said Wednesday. “At some point … that really gets people in a place where they have less concern about their health and wellbeing and more concern about feeding their family and paying their rent, and quite honestly, they just start disregarding what the government is telling them. I feel like we’re getting close to the breaking point in regards to that, which is one reason I’ve been working so hard to methodically move us into a place where we can do that.”

Kemp said he has been consulting with public health officials as the state begins to reopen businesses.

“I think we have the ability to put people back to work very quickly,” he said. “I think parts of our economy are going to continue to take a little while for our public to get comfortable going back to a restaurant or going out to some of the more public-type venues. I support trying to get that started in a methodical way.”

Kemp encouraged people to continue socially distancing and taking precautions to prevent the spread of the virus.

“We’ve got to continue to focus on the population that is most vulnerable, and that is those that are in vulnerable neighborhoods, in vulnerable populations that we have seen this virus attack ... and the medically fragile,” he said.

Associated Press contributed.