Coronavirus

Georgia’s Reopening Plan Prompts Questions, Draws Fire

Georgia’s Big COVID Comeback

When is normal, or something that approximates it, coming back? That’s a question that’s been floating around since the COVID-19 lockdown became a nationwide event a little over a month ago, spreading economic collateral damage far and wide. It’s also a question that now has an official answer, at least in some states – most notably Georgia, where the comeback is officially slated to start on Friday (April 24).

"I think this is the right approach at the right time,” Georgia Republican Gov. Brian Kemp said of his plan for a phased reopening of the state’s economy. “It's not just throwing the keys back to these business owners.”

Georgia will allow hair salons, nail salons, massage therapists, bowling alleys and gyms to open again at week’s end, with restrictions on the in-store density of consumers. Movie theaters and restaurants are scheduled to reopen next Monday, April 27.

The Peach State isn’t alone in its efforts to restart the economy, with moves toward comebacks on the rise. South Carolina began some limited store reopenings on Monday (April 20), while Florida has already lifted a state order that closed public beaches. Texas will likewise allow for some limited business reopenings on Friday, while Tennessee announced plans to reopen the majority of its businesses as of May 1.

But Georgia’s reopening plan has attracted the most attention thus far, because it goes the farthest and fastest in terms of what businesses will open and when. However, it should be noted that those openings come with restrictions beyond just social distancing guidelines. For instance, nightclubs, amusement parks and live performance venues will remain closed pending further review by public health officials.

"By taking this measured action, we will get Georgians back to work safely without undermining the progress that we have all made in the battle against COVID-19," Kemp said.

But that statement has proven to be controversial. Some are lauding Kemp and like-minded governors for getting ahead of the comeback curve, while others have criticized such moves in light of the still ongoing (and arguably growing) COVID-19 crisis.

The Debate

The southern states’ reopening plans are ahead of the three-phase Opening Up America Again outline that President Donald Trump unveiled after a meeting with the nation’s governors last week.

Trump’s plan calls for opening to commence on May 15. The outline also calls for widespread COVID testing of the general public and first-line medical workers, and requires a consistent decline in the number of coronavirus cases over a two-week period.

Most of the objections to the southern states’ reopening plans are around the fact that none of them have met either of those requirements. Georgia reported 5,700 new coronavirus cases last week – lower than the 6,000 cases found the prior week, but higher than the 3,800 cases documented in the week that ended on April 5. In addition, Tennessee, Florida and South Carolina all seem to have rising COVID cases.

Enthusiasm for reopening businesses is one thing, but former George W. Bush adviser and renowned cardiologist Dr. Jonathan Reiner told CNN that the Georgia governor’s decision goes way too far and borders on "a dereliction of duty. In Georgia, the virus is still very, very active, and this behavior is frankly reckless.”

Kemp has conceded that his plan for greater social mobility may well cause the state’s caseload to increase, but not past the point of manageability. "We're probably going to have to see our cases continue to go up, but we're a lot better prepared for that now than we were over a month ago," he said, claiming that Georgia has both sufficient hospital beds and enough testing capacity to control the virus.

And Kemp’s decision has notable defenders. CNBC’s Jim Cramer, who had formally advocated for strict social distancing until a vaccine was in mass production, noted earlier this week that he had been persuaded by Kemp that another approach is necessary given COVID-19’s economic damage.

“It’s not working to wait. I’m in the camp that just says: ‘We’ve got to try something. We have to,’” Cramer said on CNBC’s “Squawk on the Street.” He said the threat of an imminent catastrophe from an early economic restart is countered by the economic catastrophe already in progress for millions of unemployed Americans. 

What Do Consumers Say?

While opinions of Kemp’s move have been cataloged extensively in the national media, the consumer’s voice has been oddly silent in all of this. Judging by PYMNTS’ latest survey of consumer sentiment, no matter what state or public health officials say (or don’t say), consumers will ultimately decide when the economy will reopen by actually agreeing to rejoin it.

Our latest poll of some 8,000 U.S. consumers found they might be quite a bit further from doing so than anyone is taking into account.

Consumers told us they were eight times more concerned about losing their lives to COVID-19 or infecting someone they cared about than they were about losing their jobs or personal fortunes as a result of the economic fallout.

And that difference, Karen Webster noted in her commentary this week, isn’t all that surprising, despite the fact that, statistically speaking, consumers are at much worse economic risk than health risk from COVID-19. “After all, people get re-employed, but can’t come back from the dead,” Webster wrote.

Such sentiment has now extended to what consumers are thinking when they consider getting back to “normal.” It turns out their bar is fairly high.

Only about half of the consumers we spoke with believe life will go back to normal once the pandemic is over – and for the vast majority of them, an “okay” sign from the U.S. government won't do it. Just one in five consumers say that having federal and state governments give them the “all-clear” is an important part of restoring their willingness to return to normal.

“Flattening the curve” isn’t the silver bullet, either – only 22 percent of respondents cited that as their bellwether for returning to normal economic activity. Similarly, only a minority of respondents would be satisfied with the World Health Organization (WHO) rescinding COVID-19’s global pandemic status (25 percent) or the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reporting that conditions are safe (27 percent).

In fact, there’s only one thing consumers say will make them comfortable resuming their normal routines consistently across business categories: a vaccine.

Nearly half of all consumers we studied (49 percent) reported that a vaccine would give them the confidence to resume normal activities. That proportion has doubled since we first polled consumers on the subject on March 17.

And consumers are willing to wait it out. Nearly half of those we spoke to (45 percent) said they believe this crisis will go on for six months or more. Less than a third of respondents said the same thing a month ago.

The Bottom Line

While our surveys have affirmed that an incredibly large number of consumers have found themselves in financial crisis due to the COVID-19 epidemic, it’s not clear that they’re looking for a faster economic reopening – at least not unless it comes with a COVID-19 vaccine, a decline in caseloads or an all-clear from public health officials.

Will consumers in Georgia, South Carolina, Texas and Florida be ready to get back to normal simply because businesses are opening? That’s hard to say, but the data indicate that many consumers are willing to wait it out rather than rush out.

However, a lot will depend on how early openings play out in real life. If the states that open quickly show big economic recoveries and consumers ease back into the swing of things, they will be hailed as forward-thinking models for the rest of the nation. But if the caseload spikes, death counts climb and consumers get scared back into their houses, the early business reopenings will quickly turn into proof of the need for longer delays.

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