Listen: The Georgia Experiment

Who does the state’s reopening serve?

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As most states prepare for weeks more of lockdown, Georgia has already started to reopen. The staff writer and Georgia native Amanda Mull joins the Social Distance podcast to discuss her recent story about the political forces pushing to reopen her home state.

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What follows is an edited and condensed transcript of their conversation.

Katherine Wells: Tell me what’s going on in Georgia.

Amanda Mull: The state government has reopened a lot of businesses, particularly in the service industry. On Friday, Governor Brian Kemp reopened gyms, churches, barber shops, hair salons, and nail salons, among others. On Monday, restaurants and movie theaters followed suit. A host of other states are contemplating similar moves, like Oklahoma and Colorado, but Georgia was the first to announce it and the first to actually get those businesses back open. It took a lot of people by surprise, particularly local leaders, including Republicans. They didn’t expect this to happen so quickly.

James Hamblin: Do people really think their businesses are going to be viable right now?

Mull: This is the concern that I heard from a lot of small-business owners. Georgia’s reopening comes with a lot of mandatory safety standards. Restaurants have to drop capacity by 50 percent, remove tables, and let people sit farther apart. The food-service industry has notoriously low margins, even in ideal times with people packed into a restaurant as closely as they can be. We’re only a couple days in; so far it seems that not many restaurants have reopened their dining rooms. There are places still doing takeout, but most restaurants cannot be profitable while adhering to the safety restrictions the governor has put in place. If restaurants have been closed for a month, they have to stock up on thousands of dollars of food. And to take on that expense while also having to buy protective gear for staff is onerous.

Salons are having a bit of an easier time because they don’t have the perishable-supply issue, and a lot of hairstylists are freelancers or 1099 contractors, so if they want to come in and cut a few people a day or something like that, it would not be as starkly unprofitable as it is for restaurants. The hairstylists I spoke with are mostly taking a wait-and-see approach, but they all know people who have decided to reopen.

Wells: When you hear that Georgia is reopening, it sounds like they’re going to go completely back to normal and the cases are going to spike again and it’s going to be a catastrophe. But it sounds like what you’re describing is not that extreme at all, especially if most of the people in the state don’t even agree with opening up. What are the pros and cons of this approach?

Mull: I spoke to someone from Georgia State University, in Atlanta, and he said the biggest problem he saw from a contagion perspective is that a lot of the businesses that are reopening are high-touch. In order for someone to get their hair cut, the stylist or barber has to be up in their personal space. You cannot get a socially distanced haircut. Same with a manicure. Same with somebody serving you a plate of food. They’re going to have to lean over you to pass food to the person sitting next to you. So you end up in a situation where a lot of the businesses that can come back are putting people in particularly dangerous situations, even relative to all the other types of businesses there might be. You also bring in a group of people who are particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus. The service industry is primarily made up of people of color, especially in Georgia, as well as people from working-class or poor backgrounds who have poor access to health care in even the best of times. Georgia has no Medicaid expansion, so a lot of the people who sweep out salons or serve drinks or bus tables can’t get health care if they need it and don’t have paid time off. Even if it is possible in some places to bring some businesses back, this has been done in a particularly dangerous way.

Wells: Why is it being approached this way?

Mull: That is an excellent question. There are various theories. The official explanation from Governor Kemp is that these people want to get back to work. These small businesses want to reopen. It can be done safely with protective measures and we can get income back to people who need it. The less generous explanation is that there has been pressure from business owners who are powerful within the state to make this move so that they can put people back to work. Also, from a fiscal perspective for the state, if a business reopens and an employee of that business decides not to go back to work, because they fear infection or are at heightened risk because of existing health problems, that person appears to no longer be eligible for state unemployment benefits, so it saves the state some money.

Hamblin: I’ve heard that argument, that the government is trying to reopen so they are no longer responsible for people’s welfare. Now they can just say, If you don’t want to go to work or if your business fails, that’s on you.

Mull: There is a vested interest by those in control of these policies for the risk to be assumed by individuals instead of the government. The order does not force anyone to reopen, but if a business does reopen, your options are either to go back to work and risk infection or stay home and no longer be eligible for unemployment. That is not an equal decision. That is a decision that the state has seemingly purposefully weighted toward you going back to work and risking infection, because it’s no longer willing to support your pursuit of safety.

Georgia also has some unique fiscal issues that might be playing into this. In 2014, the state amended its constitution to cap the state income tax at 6 percent. That means that it would be difficult to raise taxes to fund further unemployment at the moment. You’d have to re-amend the state constitution. The state Republican Party, which controls the state government, is not amenable to that. So you’d have to get over the logistical issues and the ideological issues to raise more money to deepen the unemployment pool to pay out benefits, and that is just really hard to do.

Wells: What is the appropriate way to think about reopening?

Mull: The most solid way to approach this right now is to listen to public-health leaders. Right now, their recommendations are two continuous weeks of declining infection rates and declining death rates. You also need really widespread testing. In a state like Georgia, and in most states in America, making testing accessible to people who have poor access to resources in general is going to be difficult. You just need a lot more of everything, basically.

Hamblin: We also need to equip systems for massive hygiene practices. There should be hand sanitizer in every subway car and there should be masks publicly available and there should be social enforcement of rules too. There already are. In Brooklyn, people on the street yell at you if you’re not wearing a face covering. If you’re in a place where that can be led by social stigmatization, there will be less of a need to enforce closures legally. That’s different from places where you see people engaging in straight-up dangerous practices and the only way to prevent that is to make everything illegal and close everything down.

Wells: Amanda, you’re from Georgia. What does it feel like as a person who loves Georgia to be watching all of this from afar right now?

Mull: It’s stressful. My elderly parents and my asthmatic little brother still live there, and are still trying to get groceries and not get infected. And then you watch everybody else talk about Georgia, talk about the people there, who really don’t have an idea of what the state is like, what the people who live there are like, and assume that they’re just poor hicks who can’t self-govern.

Wells: If there were ever a time to be able to understand how a centralized government might not be fully indicative of the character of the people it serves, it seems like this might be the time.

Mull: That same nuance or courtesy does not get extended to southerners very often, which is why I wanted to write about it.