Georgia businesses reopen cautiously amid coronavirus worry

SAVANNAH, Ga. (AP) — Some businesses in Georgia reopened cautiously Friday as the Republican governor eased a month-long shutdown amid experts’ warnings of a potential new surge in coronavirus infections and a potent objection from President Donald Trump.

Georgia has ranked in the bottom per capita for testing — a key component in preventing a resurgence — despite a bump in screenings this week, and critics say Gov. Brian Kemp’s order was premature.

But in metro Atlanta, the Three-13 Salon, Spa & Boutique opened to a line of masked customers whose temperature was checked before entering. A bowling alley in Rome posted on Facebook that it was getting back in business with social distancing rules, including a limit of six people to a lane and plenty of hand sanitizer.

With deaths and infections still rising in Georgia, many business owners planned to remain closed in spite of Kemp’s assurance that hospital visits and new cases have leveled off enough for barbers, tattoo artists, massage therapists and personal trainers to return to work with restrictions including screening of customers’ for potential symptoms, protective gear and frequent cleaning.

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David Huynh had 60 clients booked for appointments at his nail salon in Savannah, but a clothing store, jewelry shop and chocolatier that share a street corner with his downtown business, Envy Nail Bar, remained closed as he opened.

“The phone’s been staying ringing off the hook,” Huynh said. “We’ve probably gotten hundreds of calls in the last hour.”

Four women clutching face masks were waiting outside when the nail salon opened for the first time since March 26.

“Yes, I am ready to get my nails fixed,” said Alina Davis, a police officer for the local school system, who has kept working throughout the crisis.

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At the reopened Bodyplex Fitness Adventure in Grayson, a dozen people in masks worked out on two floors, spraying down machines and weights with sanitizer provided by the gym. The gym had a tiny fraction of its usual number of customers.

Meanwhile, advertising project manager Nikki Thomas is overdue for a visit to her hair stylist, but she’s barely ventured outside her house in the six weeks since her employer in Atlanta mandated working from home on March 12, and she had no plans to change that now just because of Kemp’s decision.

“It’s obviously extremely stupid and I’m simultaneously exhausted and so angry I can barely see straight,” Thomas, 40, said in a phone interview.

Although many businesses never closed, the governor has said it was imperative to begin easing his state’s economic suffering by allowing others to resume work. The Georgia Department of Labor announced Thursday that 1.1 million workers — about one-fifth of the state’s workforce — filed for unemployment in the five weeks since the crisis started.

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Although two administration officials told The Associated Press that Trump and Vice President Mike Pence repeatedly told Kemp they approved of his aggressive plan before the president bashed it publicly, Trump tweeted a denial Friday morning as businesses reopened.

“I (or @VP) never gave Governor Brian Kemp an OK on those few businesses outside of the Guidelines. FAKE NEWS! Spas, beauty salons, tattoo parlors, & barber shops should take a little slower path, but I told the Governor to do what is right for the great people of Georgia (& USA)!” the president said in the tweet.

Georgia’s approach to reopening is more aggressive than those of other states and countries. France won’t reopen its restaurants, bars and cafes before June, and Serbia said gyms and hair salons can’t reopen until next week.

Public health experts have warned that reopening too quickly could trigger a coronavirus resurgence. Preventing that will require increased testing and robust tracking of infected people’s contacts.

Georgia has more than 22,000 confirmed cases of the virus and 894 deaths, according to Department of Public Health statistics. The state has been lagging in the number of tests per capita, but has administered an increasing number of tests this week.

Kemp’s timeline to restart the economy proved too ambitious even for Trump, who said Wednesday that he “disagreed strongly” with the fellow Republican’s plan.

Shannon Pengitore, a massage therapist in Marietta outside Atlanta, had a few clients ask for appointments this week. But she’s not ready, saying she hasn’t seen clear protocols from the state for protecting herself and her clients.

“Massage therapy is continual contact with the customer for long periods of time in a small room,” Pengitore said. “If I’m not really comfortable with this, what’s getting transmitted to them? It’s a lot of anxiety.”

Starting Monday, Georgia will allow movie theaters to reopen and restaurants to resume dine-in service — as long as customers are kept at a distance.

Chef Hugh Acheson, who owns three fine-dining restaurants in Athens and Atlanta, said Georgia’s conducting too little testing to safely reopen. He also doubts it would be profitable.

“If I open up fine dining in midtown Atlanta and … 25 people show up to dinner because I’m brazen enough to do this, that’s not enough to make money and stay in business,” Acheson said.

Bethany Farmer works at an Atlanta yoga studio and tends bar at a burger joint. She said neither has asked her to return yet, and that’s fine with her. She fears slow business would mean reduced wages, and the virus remains too much of a threat.

“I could be a carrier even if I don’t feel anything,” Farmer said. “I get worried about all the other people I would encounter.”


Associated Press journalists Kate Brumback and Jeff Amy in Atlanta; Sudhin Thanawala in Grayson; Mike Stewart and Ron Harris in Marietta; and Jay Reeves in Birmingham, Alabama, contributed to this report.