Georgia’s Experiment in Human Sacrifice
The state is about to find out how many people need to lose their lives to shore up the economy.
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 last 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. On Friday, gyms, churches, hair and nail salons, and tattoo parlors were allowed to reopen, if the owners were willing. Yesterday, restaurants and movie theaters came back. The U-turn has left Georgians scrambling. Canavaggio has 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 told me. “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 have 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 has been hit particularly hard by the pandemic, and the state’s testing efforts have 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 two 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 agree 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 are 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 has positioned Georgia at 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 have no delusions about the risks of reopening, even if they need to return to work for financial reasons. Among the dozen local leaders, business owners, and workers I spoke with for this article, all said they know 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.
Estimates vary as to how many businesses might actually reopen now, but none of the Georgians I talked with knew many people who intended to voluntarily head right back to work. That was true in Athens, which has long been one of the Deep South’s most progressive cities, as well as in Blackshear, a small town in the rural southeastern part of the state that tends toward conservatism. Kelly Girtz, the mayor of Athens, estimated that about 90 percent of the local business owners he had spoken with in the past week had no intention of reopening immediately. “Georgia’s plan simply is not that well designed,” Girtz says. “To call it a ‘plan’ might be overstating the case.”
Several of Georgia’s Republican mayors did not return requests for comment, but some have publicly supported Kemp’s decision. In Watkinsville, which is near Athens, Mayor Bob Smith released a statement on Sunday encouraging the town’s residents to return to religious services and their jobs.
Certainly, demand for these businesses’ services still exists. For many hair stylists, the response to Kemp’s reopening announcement was swift. Zach Lee, a salon owner in Blackshear who closed his business well in advance of the state’s shutdown, told me he heard from clients within 15 minutes of Kemp’s press conference. Lee had to tell them he wouldn’t be reopening yet because he didn’t think doing so was safe. “I want to work. I’m a workaholic. I can’t wait to get back behind the chair and do hair,” he said. “But now is not the time. I really don’t feel like being the guinea pig in this situation, and I don’t want my clients being guinea pigs either.”
Lee has been without an income for six weeks. He’s heard that at least another six will pass before he’s able to access any of the federal relief funds that have been promised for small businesses like his. Many of his clients have bought gift cards or mailed him checks to help with his expenses while he stays at home.
In the Atlanta suburb of Marietta, another salon owner, Sabra Dupree, has decided to give reopening a shot. She has run a place called Kids Kuts for more than 20 years. When the governor shut down businesses like hers, she began preparing to eventually reopen. “We gutted the whole salon,” she told me. “We sanitized it. We cleaned it. We repainted the stations. We took the porous countertops off and put granite countertops on.” Only three of the salon’s five staff members want to work right now. During their shifts, they’ll be fully outfitted in the protective gear—masks, face shields, gowns, and gloves—now required by the state’s board of cosmetology. “If I’m doing it wrong, shame on me, but I’m trying,” Dupree said. “It would be different if I were sitting here in a mansion and I could give every single person $10,000 to be closed and stay home, but that’s not an option for us.”
Extensive protective gear is required in most types of reopened businesses, which was a sticking point for every Georgian I spoke with who was contemplating a return to work. They said the state is providing neither the gear itself nor guidance on how to get it, so they’re in the same market as everyone else, competing with medical workers and high-risk people who need masks to safely go to the grocery store. Lee said he doesn’t “feel comfortable buying up that stuff right now when there’s hospitals that are needing it and they can’t get it.” Dupree said that to secure the gear she needed to reopen, she had to ask clients and friends to volunteer their extras.
Many workers and business owners have to factor in competition. “The trouble with [Kemp’s] ad hoc orders is that they sort of gin up a generalized interest in commercial or business activity,” said Girtz, who spent much of his career as a local public-school teacher before becoming the mayor of Athens last year. When people hear on the news that businesses are open, many will assume that it’s safe to patronize them, and may miss more nuanced information about ongoing safety concerns. And when only some businesses open, they’re able to capitalize on this interest and swipe business from still-closed competitors.
For hair stylists, barbers, and nail technicians, whose livelihoods are especially reliant on loyal customers, losing business to others is worrisome. “I want to keep my clients and I don’t want them to see anybody else,” Jillian Yeskel, a stylist in the Atlanta suburb of Roswell, told me. Yeskel has asthma, which might worsen cases of COVID-19, so she’s decided to hold off on returning to work for at least another two weeks. During the shutdown order, she didn’t have to pay rent for her salon station like she normally does, but now that the order has been lifted, she’ll have to start paying again.
For restaurants, the decision to open up can be even more complicated. Profit margins in the food-service industry are already notoriously slim, and Georgia’s restaurants have been instructed to reduce their capacity by half to ensure distance between customers. Places like the Globe that rely on alcohol sales for most of their profits can’t meaningfully offset the loss with limited in-house service and takeout and delivery. “Our rent isn’t changing, but our capacity for our building is greatly reduced,” Canavaggio said. “Unless we start selling $400 beers, what do we have?” The Globe, he decided, will remain closed indefinitely.
While Georgians attempt to parse what Kemp’s abrupt move means on a practical level, they’re also trying to understand why he chose to reopen now. The state’s testing capacity is expanding, but none of its testing and infection data meets even the modest standards the Trump administration has set for reopening. Kemp’s plan specifies neither the mechanisms by which statewide safety measures will be meaningfully expanded nor the extent of liability that business owners will bear if they open up and people get sick. Multiple people told me that some hair stylists have decided to require clients to sign legal releases before letting anyone sit in their chairs.
Kemp’s office did not respond to a request for an interview. In the past week, he has said that he believes reopening businesses will alleviate Georgians’ economic suffering; on Monday, he said he thought statistical models that predicted increased deaths in the state post-opening painted too grim a picture of the possibilities, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Some residents think pressure from the state’s most influential business owners—people who would be shielded from the dangers their employees would face—was a likely factor in the decision to reopen. Others have speculated that the move is intended to bolster the state’s budget, possibly by making thousands of people ineligible for unemployment benefits if their employers reopen. “Every indication thus far is that you as an employee can’t stay home and continue to collect unemployment simply because you fear infection,” Mayor Girtz told me. “You of your own volition have made that decision, in terms of how the system views you.”
Harry Heiman, a public-health professor at Georgia State University, in Atlanta, told me the decision to reopen demonstrates how the state’s government has treated its citizens for years, well before Kemp’s 2018 election: “They’ve long prioritized policies that they believe support businesses, even though those same policies might not be good for workers or for the communities that those workers come from.” These policies have largely accomplished their desired goals: In the span of a generation, the population in the Atlanta metro area has doubled. Corporations including Mercedes-Benz USA, Newell Brands, and Norfolk Southern Railway have moved their headquarters to the state. But many of the programs to attract those employers, Heiman said, have weakened the state’s social safety net and labor protections.
That effect has burdened some populations more than others. “We’re opening up businesses that are not only high-touch and requiring proximity, but we’re also choosing industries where racial- and ethnic-minority communities are disproportionately represented,” Heiman noted. He said that choosing to restart these industries is likely to deepen the crisis for communities of color in the South. “They’re going back to a job that places them at increased risk for exposure to coronavirus, and they don’t have access to Medicaid, because we haven’t expanded it,” he explained. Across America, black and Latino people have died from COVID-19 at rates far outpacing that of white people. In Georgia, one of the country’s worst outbreaks has struck the rural, poor city of Albany, whose population is more than 70 percent black. In addition to the lack of Medicaid expansion, high incidences of medical problems such as hypertension and diabetes in the southeastern United States could make the coronavirus, which seems to prey on people with preexisting health issues, particularly deadly there.
Georgia’s health infrastructure makes Kemp’s choice particularly dangerous. Girtz worries about the state’s hospitals. His county has two, but because of rural hospital closures, he says they’re expected to provide services not just for residents of Athens-Clarke County, but for the entire 17-county region around them, home to some 700,000 people. “A town like Elberton, 35 miles from us, or Commerce, just 25 miles up the road—those were places where, a generation ago, you could have a baby,” he said. “That’s no longer true, and it’s also true they don’t have the ICU beds there.”
Few people in Georgia are eager to be a case study in pandemic exceptionalism, but many won’t have a choice. Jillian Yeskel, the stylist in Roswell, whose Trump-supporting parents voted for Kemp, said she’d had conversations with them in the past week that she couldn’t have dreamed of a few months ago. “I’d assumed they’d support anything Kemp had to say,” she told me. “I talk to my mom every day, and we’re both just so upset with him.” There’s no polling available on how Georgians feel about social-distancing measures in general, but Yeskel’s experience with her parents follows national trends: A poll conducted in mid-April by Morning Consult and Politico found that even most respondents who said they view Trump very favorably or voted for Republicans in the 2018 midterm elections wanted to continue social distancing for as long as necessary.
All Georgians can do now is try to protect themselves as best they can. If social distancing decreases because lots of businesses reopen, another deluge of COVID-19 cases could be inevitable. Because of how infections tend to progress, it may be two or three weeks before hospitals see a new wave of people whose lungs look like they’re studded with ground glass in X-rays. By then, there’s no telling how many more people could be carrying the disease into nail salons or tattoo parlors, going about their daily lives because they were told they could do so safely.
In the meantime, local leaders whose municipal shutdowns have been overruled by state law are relying on other methods to keep their communities safe: disseminating information about testing, finding funds for food banks, creating grant programs to get a little bit of money to local businesses in need. For some, that includes duties both official and unofficial. On his walk home from city hall last week, Girtz said, he encountered his neighbors, a group of student roommates, enjoying the warm spring day. He’s lived in Athens a long time, and was worried that in a town known for revelry, a few people partying outside could turn into a lot of people partying outside. “They were drinking beer on the curb,” he recalled. “I just had to say, ‘Y’all, enjoy your time to the degree that you can, but at least go up on the damn porch.’”
Listen to Amanda Mull talk about this story on Social Distance, The Atlantic’s podcast about life in the pandemic: