The Covid-19 crisis presents no easy answers. The trade-off between trying to keep citizens safe and healthy and trying to prevent a prolonged recession is a complex balancing act that challenges the wisest of leaders.
Brian Kemp is not the wisest of leaders.
The Governor of my great state of Georgia was among the first to begin reopening for business with yesterday’s surprising announcement. It was surprising because Georgia remains 14th out of 50 states in per capita confirmed cases of Covid-19, and unconfirmed cases remain a mystery due to lack of testing. Our logarithmic rate of confirmed cases is 10th highest in the nation (or just a little higher than Italy).
So why would Kemp go against the advice of most public health officials who believe that we still have quite a long way to go before relaxing current stay-at-home guidelines? Look no further than the unemployment line.
The Georgia Department of Labor, which is staffed with half the workers it had during the recession thanks to budget cuts, has been overwhelmed with claims from a million Georgians—10% of the population. The state’s unemployment fund was at $2.6 billion at the beginning of this year, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, a reserve that could be quickly depleted without federal aid.
Georgia’s Constitution, which prohibits spending more than it receives in taxes and fees, was amended in 2014 to prohibit any raise in income taxes above 6%. And in January of 2019, HB 918, signed by the previous Governor Nathan Deal, dropped the rate to 5.75%—whether you make $15,000 a year or $15 million. Even before the economy took a hit, the legislature was having a hard time balancing its budget, thanks to a decrease in the state’s revenue of more than $450 million. Last year’s filing was $130 million short of estimates.
We’re not quite the failed Kansas experiment of Sam Brownback yet, but give us time.
The state is in a particularly poor position to weather a pandemic. The Georgia Budget and Policy Institute warns that the state could face a $1 billion budget shortfall, which without federal aid, means a mandatory cut of $1 billion from the already stretched budget.
So when Kemp cites his confidence in the people of Georgia (“I think our citizens are ready for this,” he said in his press conference. “They’ve learned a lot. People know what social distancing is. They’re learning what mitigation is … They’re fixing to learn a lot more about contact tracing. This is the right approach at the right time.”), it’s hard take that at face value.
The list of businesses set to open this Friday includes gyms, fitness centers, bowling alleys, body art studios, barbers, cosmetologists, hair designers, nail care artists, estheticians, their respective schools and massage therapists. Theaters, private social clubs and restaurant dine-in services will be added on Monday, despite the fact that movie theaters in particular are >completely unprepared to do so.
The idea that your manicurist, stylist or waiter is going to be safe going back to work this week is ludicrous, but Kemp has decided it’s worth the gamble of their lives to remove them from the unemployment rolls. The current hot spots in Georgia are in Atlanta and the mostly African-American southwest part of the state, areas where support for the Governor is particularly low. And the list of people going back to work are mostly low-wage jobs whose entire pay would normally be covered by unemployment benefits with the addition of contract laborers and self-employed workers on the rolls. And the decision was made without consulting local officials.
“I saw the announcement watching Channel 2 like the rest of Georgia,” Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms told WSB-TV “I didn’t know it was coming, and obviously the governor is the governor and he certainly has the prerogative to make orders that he deems appropriate. He did not consult with me. I don’t know what the reasoning and data that the governor used to make this decision was, because I have not spoken with him, but I did not know in advance.”
Bottoms had put an advisory panel in place to help the city open up responsibly, but the Governor’s orders override any local ordinances.
From a medical standpoint, Georgia isn’t in a particularly good position to lead the charge in opening for business, still lagging in testing (45th in the nation in per capita testing), though that’s beginning to ramp up. And although he’s listed a set of guidelines for businesses to meet before opening, there’s no enforcement system in place.
Kemp has pleaded for unity at this time: “If we allow politics, partisanship, elections, and egos to divide us during this important inflection point, our entire state will suffer.”
But it’s hard not to see political cynicism in his move when he’s taken such a reckless action and taken the ability to implement restrictions in the state’s hardest-hit areas out of the hands of local officials.
“I do hope that I’m wrong and the governor is right,” Bottoms said. “Because if he’s wrong, more people can die.”