Via Financial Times

When Georgia’s Republican governor Brian Kemp said he would allow gyms, hair salons, tattoo parlours and other small businesses in the state to reopen on Friday, Paris Campeau had a tough decision to make.

Ms Campeau owns Indigo Wellness, a spa in Atlanta, employing 15 people to provide massages, waxing and manicures, among other treatments. She closed her doors in late March as concerns mounted about Covid-19 — nearly two weeks before Mr Kemp issued a statewide “stay at home” order.

More than a month later, Ms Campeau has yet to be approved for federal funding to help small businesses, and is worried about her ability to pay the rent — but she will keep her spa closed.

“The very nature of our business is to touch people. There’s no social distancing,” Ms Campeau said. “There’s no takeout service to get a brow wax.”

“I felt like it was the responsible thing to do,” she added. “I don’t want anybody in my house to be sick, and I don’t want to be responsible for getting my staff or their family sick or anybody in my community sick.”

Line chart of 7-day rolling average showing Newly confirmed cases of Covid-19 in Georgia

Ms Campeau is not alone. Many other small businesses in Georgia are reluctant to open, while larger chains are keeping their outposts in the state closed.

“We will not reopen any of our clubs or studios — even if it is allowed by local government and health officials — until we can ensure the wellbeing of our teams, members and riders,” said Harvey Spevak, chairman of Equinox Group, which owns the international chain of SoulCycle spinning studios, including its two locations in Atlanta.

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Polls suggest most Americans want to keep sheltering in place. Sixty-three per cent of Americans were more worried about restrictions lifting too fast and worsening the outbreak than they were about lifting restrictions too slowly and weakening the economy, according to a CBS News poll published on Thursday. Just 13 per cent said they would definitely return to public places if restrictions were lifted.

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Even President Donald Trump, who has pushed governors to move toward reopening, has distanced himself from Mr Kemp’s decision to make Georgia the first state to start rolling back lockdown regulations.

“I didn’t like to see spas opening,” Mr Trump said at a White House news conference on Thursday. “I wasn’t happy with Brian Kemp.”

Nonetheless, Mr Kemp, a self-described “politically incorrect conservative”, has remained adamant about pressing ahead.

He said on Twitter: “I appreciate [Mr Trump’s] bold leadership and insight during these difficult times and the framework provided by the White House to safely move states forward. Our next measured step is driven by data and guided by state public health officials. We will continue with this approach to protect the lives — and livelihoods — of all Georgians.”

But Mr Kemp’s decision is inconsistent with White House guidelines, which say that before opening up, states should demonstrate two weeks of both a “downward trajectory of documented cases” and a “downward trajectory of positive tests as a per cent of total tests”.

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According to the latest official figures, there have been 21,512 confirmed cases of Covid-19 in Georgia, with 872 people having died. More than half of Georgians who have died have been African-American, even though African-Americans make up less than a third of the state’s population.

stacked bar chart showing over-representation of black population in Georgia's covid-19 death toll

Georgia also trails most other US states in terms of testing, with a current testing rate of fewer than 1 in 10,000 citizens.

Pinar Keskinocak, a systems engineer at Georgia Tech modelling the spread of Covid-19 across the state, cautioned that given the “limitations” in testing capacity, current official data were unlikely to reflect the true scale of infections in Georgia.

“Even though we do not know how many people have been infected so far, there is still a very large portion of the population susceptible to the disease, and they can get infected when social interactions increase,” she added. “Reopening has to be done very carefully, and gradually, ideally only after we reach much higher levels of testing capacity, as well as increased capacity in the healthcare system.”

Andra Gillespie, a political science professor at Emory University in Atlanta, called Mr Kemp’s decision “extremely premature”.

line graph showing georgia is behind most other US states in coronavirus testing

“When I look at those numbers, I don’t understand why the governor is making this decision,” she said. “We could see a spike in the number of cases, we could see a spike in the number of deaths as a result of this.”

Georgia is seen as a swing state ahead of November’s presidential and congressional elections, with two US Senate seats up for grabs. Mr Trump won the state’s 16 Electoral College votes in 2016 by a 5-point margin, yet Mr Kemp only narrowly won the state’s gubernatorial election in 2018 in a bitter contest against Stacey Abrams, who many see as a potential running mate for Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee.

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J Miles Coleman, an analyst at the University of Virginia Center for Politics, said: “Georgia is a state a lot like Texas, which the Democrats have been trying to turn their way for a while, but it might not be there yet, although there are some promising trends for Democrats, especially in the Atlanta suburbs.”

In the meantime, many Georgians have little sense of when life will return to normal. When asked what it would take for her to reopen her business, Ms Campeau said she did not know.

“Once we do open, regardless of when, there will be another increase in the [coronavirus] numbers,” she said. “So does that mean we just roll with the punches, and this is our new normal, knowing we are going to be out in the workforce, possibly getting sick? Do we just open and then close again? It’s really hard to say at this point.”

Additional reporting by Christine Zhang in Baltimore