Georgia residents torn between desire to return to work and fear of coronavirus resurgence

ATLANTA (Reuters) – Rebecca Hardin is tired of stay-at-home restrictions that weeks ago shut down the Atlanta hair salon where she works, but she wondered if an order by the state’s governor allowing some businesses to reopen this week was a little premature.

Two men wearing face masks walk past a restaurant with a closed outdoor patio days before the phased reopening of businesses and restaurants from coronavirus disease (COVID-19) restrictions in Atlanta, Georgia, U.S. April 21, 2020. REUTERS/Elijah Nouvelage

Hardin, a 47-year-old hairdresser who also manages Salon Red in Atlanta’s Candler Park neighborhood, said she needs to get back to work as soon as possible. Even so, she worried that the state is risking a fresh surge of coronavirus infections and loss of life.

“I want to get back to work, but I’m worried it’s too soon,” she said. “Friday seems awfully early when we’re facing a deadly disease that has no cure or vaccine.”

Hardin was one of a handful of Atlantans who spoke with Reuters after Georgia Governor Brian Kemp’s order allowing salons, gyms, bowling alleys, barbershops, tattoo shops and other businesses to reopen as of Friday. Next week, dine-in restaurants and movie theaters will be able to reopen as well.

Despite criticism from public health experts and many local officials, Kemp has described the limited reopening as a measured approach that balances the need to get the state’s ecomony back in gear with the need to assure the safety of the public’s health.

Hardin said it was still uncertain whether Salon Red would reopen Friday.

“What if I catch it and don’t know I have it and give it to my 8-year-old, or my own parents, let alone my clients,” Hardin said. “I don’t know if it’s worth it to just open up now. It’s just hair.”

Kemp was among one of the last governors in the United States to impose the “stay-at-home” and social-distancing orders that now cover nearly all of the U.S. population.

A bipartisan majority of Americans want to maintain “shelter at home” orders, even though it has devastated the U.S. economy, But the number of people, mostly Republicans, who want a reopening is increasing, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll released on Tuesday.

Under his new rules, Kemp said that businesses that are reopening still must enforce social distancing and screen workers for fevers and respiratory illnesses to minimize the risk of transmitting the virus. Elderly people who are “medically fragile” should stay at home at least through mid-May, the governor said.

The state has relatively low case numbers and its per-capita death rate from coronavirus – 6 per 100,000 – is below national average. Even so, Georgia on Monday reported 1,242 new infections over the prior 24 hours, the highest single-day tally in two weeks, while 94 people died, double the state’s previous daily record.

To be sure, many Georgians are backing the governor’s plan.

Steve Tumlin, mayor of the Atlanta suburb of Marietta, said he planned to hit the gym and get a haircut on Friday. On Monday, he was looking forward to eating breakfast, lunch and dinner at Marietta restaurants, he said on social media.

“Thank you Governor Brian Kemp and our state leaders, health leaders and Georgia National Guard,” he wrote on Twitter. “Buy, hire, trade and dine in Marietta. Godspeed. Seek out Marietta businesses.”

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Tumlin’s position is in sharp contrast to other political leaders in the state. Atlanta’s Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said she was not told by the governor that he planned to do this and said, “I don’t see that it’s based on anything logical,” the Deomocrat told the media.

Atlanta resident, Sean Simmons, 45, an automobile detailer, who was walking to get a takeout sandwich in the East Atlanta Village neighborhood, said that he was in favor of opening businesses but was not sure if it was too soon.

“As long as we stay safe, I think maybe we’ll be OK, but I don’t know for sure,” he said. “I need to get back to work, but what’s the cost? I know people are struggling. I just don’t have a good answer.”

Reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta; Editing by Frank McGurty and Cynthia Osterman