Georgia governor faces growing pressure, but shows no signs of reversal

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) is under growing pressure to reverse course on his decision to open businesses in the state after President TrumpDonald TrumpMan sentenced to nearly four years for running scam Trump, Biden PACs Meadows says Trump's blood oxygen level was dangerously low when he had COVID-19 Trump endorses David Perdue in Georgia's governor race MORE publicly opposed the decision Wednesday at a White House coronavirus task force briefing. 

Kemp is moving forward with plans to reopen parts of the economy across Georgia, including close-contact businesses like nail salons, barbershops and massage parlors.

It’s a decision that has met with a backlash, including from some Republicans, who say the move risks leading to additional outbreaks.

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“The president wants the country open. I want the country open,” Rep. Doug CollinsDouglas (Doug) Allen CollinsJan. 6 panel releases contempt report on Trump DOJ official ahead of censure vote Lobbying world Sunday shows preview: Biden administration confronts inflation spike MORE (R-Ga.) said on “Fox & Friends” on Thursday. “The governor wants the country open. The problem is how do you do it? And I think that's the problem with leadership.”

Local officials have said they will recommend that their citizens stay home while criticizing the decision.

In the state House, dozens of Democratic lawmakers drafted a letter to Kemp, asking him to wait to reopen businesses until testing capacity has improved in Georgia. 

“Giving local officials the ability to respond to the on-ground, real-time facts with respect to community transmission in the form of more restrictive local emergency orders is imperative in moving into a next phase of relaxed restrictions,” the lawmakers wrote in the letter. 

Kemp hasn’t signaled any change in his plans, despite the pushback from Trump and others, even as the total number of coronavirus cases in his state rose to 21,000 on Thursday.

“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,” Kemp said in a tweet responding to Trump’s criticism. 

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“Just like the thousands of businesses currently operating throughout Georgia, I am confident that business owners who decide to reopen will adhere to Minimum Basic Operations, which prioritize the health and well-being of employees and customers,” he continued. 

Under the plans he has set forward, Kemp will allow businesses like gyms and barbershops to open on a limited basis Friday. Theaters and dine-in restaurants will be allowed to open Monday with some restrictions. Additionally, Kemp has said that employers will have to increase sanitation and social distancing protocols, as well as check workers for fever and respiratory illness symptoms. 

Democratic Senate candidate Jon Ossoff warned that Kemp risked accelerating the outbreak if he reopened businesses in the near future. 

“The highest priority of our elected officials should be swift adaptation to COVID-19 so we can re-open Georgia as quickly and safely as possible,” Ossoff said in a statement on Thursday. 

There are two Senate races in Georgia this year, including one where Collins is challenging Sen. Kelly LoefflerKelly LoefflerPerdue to challenge Kemp in Georgia governor primary: report Senate GOP worries Trump could derail bid for majority Perdue mulling primary challenge against Kemp in Georgia: report MORE (R-Ga.), whom Kemp appointed.

That’s turned Kemp’s handling of the coronavirus openings into a political issue in the race. Loeffler has offered support for Kemp, saying the opening of the state should be done in a way that is safe.

Kemp had already faced some criticism for other decisions, including his move to reopen beaches to exercisers as part of his statewide shelter-in-place order. 

“The governor should have left it alone. It was done. Scratching my head after this decision. Maybe the governor should have sought the opinion of local representatives,” said Republican state Rep. Jeff Jones, of St. Simons Island, referring to the decision to reopen the state's beaches. 

Glynn County Commission Chairman Mike Browning (R ) was so displeased with beaches reopening that he gave out his phone number in an interview, telling Kemp to personally call him. 

“There is no leadership in this state. I’m almost ashamed to be called Georgian,” Browning told The Brunswick News. “You can print this. 912-574-9150. Governor Kemp, call me. If I’m wrong, then someone can come tell me.”

Republicans say they are skeptical of whether the move will politically damage Kemp, who will face reelection in 2022, in the long run. 

“I’d be wary of [whether] this could come back and bite the governor,” Clay said. “The governor is getting beat up in a lot of ways, so in some respects, he ain’t got nothing more to lose.” 

Jonathan Easley contributed.