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Restaurants, some other businesses to reopen soon; health leaders say no time 'to relax'
Kemp press conference
Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp speaks during a news conference April 1, 2020, at Liberty Plaza across the street from the Georgia state Capitol building in downtown Atlanta. - photo by Alyssa Pointer | Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP

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Even as health officials warn against premature action, the “first phase” of Georgia’s reopening — from some businesses allowed to operate to elective surgeries resuming — was announced by Gov. Brian Kemp on Monday, April 20.

“By taking this measured action, we will get Georgians back to work safely without undermining the progress we all have made in this battle against COVID-19,” Kemp said.

Businesses that have been basically shuttered under Georgia’s shelter in place, such as barber shops, hair salons and tattoo shops, can reopen with restrictions Friday, April 24.

“This measure allows them to undertake baseline operations that most other businesses have maintained since I issued the shelter in place order,” Kemp said, speaking at a news conference at the State Capitol.

He added: “This measure will apply statewide and will be the operational standard in all jurisdictions. This means local action cannot be taken that is more or less restrictive.”

Also under restrictions, theaters, private social clubs and restaurant dine-in services will be able to operate beginning Monday, April 27. More information regarding their opening will be released over the next few days, Kemp said.

Kemp’s move, in effect, relaxes 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 must be closed, although they could provide delivery, drive-thru or takeout service.

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

“In the days ahead, we will be evaluating the data and conferring with public health officials to determine the best course of action for those establishments,” Kemp said.

Local health leaders warned this is not the time to relax measures put in place to stem the spread of the disease.

“Some people may think we are overstating the seriousness of the situation, and they’re anxious to get back to ‘business as usual,” Northeast Georgia Health System President and CEO Carol Burrell said. “But our physician leaders, clinical experts and objective data all tell us now is not the time to relax.”

NGHS reported Monday evening that the picture is more dire as testing data continues to lag.

“Keep in mind, due to challenges that still exist with testing, we are confident that even our latest data doesn’t truly reveal all cases that exist in our community,” said Dr. Supriya Mannepalli, chair of Northeast Georgia Medical Center’s Infection Prevention & Control Committee. “It’s a certainty there are more people with COVID-19 in our region who haven’t been tested and aren’t showing any symptoms.”

In a release Monday evening, NGHS spokesman Sean Couch said a total of 15 COVID-19-positive patients had died at the system’s hospitals, including eight in Hall. Hall has more positive cases than any other county outside of metro Atlanta and Albany, and with a per capita rate of 377 cases per 100,000 in population, NGHS described the situation as “severe.”

“It’s true that we have some capacity for patients today, but that is extremely likely to change,” said Dr. Clifton Hastings, chief of NGMC’s medical staff. “The only way to lessen the likelihood of our hospitals being overwhelmed is for people to continue following expert recommendations to stay home as much as possible, wear masks and isolate if you develop symptoms.”

NGHS said its Gainesville and Braselton intensive care units were operating at between 60 and 80 percent capacity.

“They would have already been overwhelmed if we had not recently increased our total ICU beds from 91 to 134,” said NGHS chief operating officer Michael Covert. “We look forward to adding 20 more beds when a mobile ICU unit granted by the state arrives on May 5. We have also increased the number of medical/surgical beds across all four hospitals from 474 to 522, and we have a total of 108 ventilators across the health system.”

In his statement earlier in the day, the governor said reopened businesses would not be conducting operations in the normal way.

“They aren’t reopening as business as usual,” he said. “Each of these entities will be subject to specific restrictions, including … social distancing and regular sanitation.”

He also said, without citing any specific areas, “Over the next few days, we will continue to closely monitor existing and potential hot spots in our state.”

Also, moving forward, elective surgeries “deemed essential” will be allowed, Kemp said.

“To help in this battle against COVID-19, health care facilities across Georgia voluntarily paused elective surgeries to reduce equipment and personnel shortages,” Kemp said.

“This selfless act … enhanced our ability to keep Georgians safe. However, many now find themselves in a difficult financial situation — some losing millions of dollars a day as they sacrifice for the greater good. This is not sustainable long-term for these facilities.”

NGHS officials didn’t comment Monday on whether or when the system would resume performing elective surgeries.

Under the order, churches also will be allowed to hold “in-person services” but while abiding by “strict social distancing protocol,” Kemp said.

“Of course, online, call-in and drive-in services remain a good option for religious institutions,,” he said.

News Editor Nate McCullough contributed to this report.