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.