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Opinion: States must move carefully and not erase hard work and positive impact of social distancing
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

Even as we all brace ourselves for the cruel peaking of coronavirus cases that we have been told may still be two weeks away in Georgia, leaders at the state and national level are developing strategies for a gradual return to whatever semblance of normalcy will make sense once the number of virus cases begins to wane.

The most substantive step in that direction was taken by President Donald Trump on Thursday, when he outlined a phased-in approach to “reopening America” to which he said the federal government would lend its support on a state-by-state basis.

Thursday’s announcement that the feds expect the governors of each state to dictate timing and details of any such effort marked a sharp turn from the beginning of the week, when Trump left constitutionalists, political observers, governors and much of the media confused and critical after a pronouncement that the president had the authority to dictate what should be done on a national scale.

Thankfully, he moved away from that “president as king” moment and moved toward embracing a much more defensible position of cooperation with individual governors on a timetable appropriate to the individual states.

The Times editorial board

Staff members

  • Norman Baggs, general manager
  • Shannon Casas, editor in chief

Community members

  • Cheryl Brown
  • David George
  • Brent Hoffman
  • J.C. Smith
  • Tom Vivelo
  • Mandy Harris

We can only hope the shift in position is a permanent one. What we don’t need as we try to emerge from the current economic nightmare is the confusion of mixed signals that would erupt from the president saying one thing and governors of specific states saying something else.

The plan outlined by the president calls for states to use certain medical metrics in determining when to begin a three-phase process of reopening businesses and lifting of stay-at-home mandates. Under the federal recommendations, states would move through three, 14-day periods of reduced restrictions and medical evaluations as they work gradually over time to emerge from the cocoons of COVID-19 isolation.

Trump made it very clear, however, that the role of the federal government in this process would be advisory and supportive, with each state responsible for making its own decisions on what to do when, and governors responsible for developing specific plans for the states they govern.

That only makes sense. Across the breadth of the nation, the status of the pandemic is dramatically different from one place to another. Some areas have been hit incredibly hard, with high numbers of deaths and health care systems completely overtaxed; in others, the impact has been much less severe.

Wednesday, Vice President Mike Pence reported that 24% of the counties in the country still have no reported cases of the virus at all, and that half of the states have fewer than 2,500 cases. By way of comparison, Georgia on Friday reported more than 17,000 cases; New York more than 220,000. In Hall County, the per capita rate of cases Friday was 271.8 per 100,000 residents, the highest in Northeast Georgia.

Clearly, there is no one-size-fits-all strategy for a return to better days that is going to work across the country. Giving the governors federal guidance and support, while allowing them to take the steps dictated by their state’s situation, was the right move in Washington.

Closer to home, Gov. Brian Kemp said in a statement Thursday he plans to use the federal guidelines and coordinate with health officials to “develop a plan for safely returning to more routine operations.”

As good as those words sound, it is important that we not rush forward heedlessly. It is vital to the state’s economy that we re-establish a more normal lifestyle as soon as is feasibly possible, but launching such an effort too soon may mean that much of the misery we’ve already suffered will have been for naught, and we may have to suffer some of it again.

Jobs are being lost, family finances negatively impacted, businesses stressed to the point of closing and our consumer economy has just about disappeared. But if we reopen for business like everything is normal too soon, we run the risk of making it worse than it is.

It is important to remember than even while “opening up America again,” to use the president’s words, we aren’t necessarily going to be returning to life as it was just a few short weeks ago. Even optimistic projections point toward a need for continued social distancing, attention to personal hygiene, and ongoing treatment of new COVID-19 cases for months to come, as work continues toward finding a vaccine and viable treatments.

Projections also warn us that while it is encouraging to be looking ahead to some degree of normalcy, there is a very real probability that the next couple of weeks here in Georgia may be the worst we’ve seen yet in terms of caseload, deaths, and strain on health care facilities and first responders.

We are still a long way from being out of the woods and into the sunshine. We have to stay the course, stay home and stay smart if we are to stay healthy and stay alive. But there’s legitimate cause for hope that better days are ahead.

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