Graphic via Tania Lil for COURIER
Graphic via Tania Lil for COURIER

In Georgia, some businesses are reopening Friday despite the threat to public health. Gov. Kemp has justified his decision by saying it’s meant to strengthen the state’s lagging economy.

The United States marked a grim milestone on Friday: More than 50,000 Americans have died as a result of contracting the novel coronavirus. 

In Georgia, the day marks a different kind of transition: Thanks to an announcement earlier in the week from Republican Gov. Brian Kemp, hair and nail salons, barbershops, gyms, and bowling alleys may reopen Friday as long as they comply with what the governor called “minimum basic operations.” Those standards include screening workers for a fever, enhanced workplace sanitation, requiring hand washing,  staggering shifts, and making sure workspaces are six feet apart. Movie theaters could reopen on Monday, Kemp added, and restaurants could resume dine-in service then as well.

Kemp justified his decision by saying it’s meant to strengthen the state’s lagging economy, which has been devastated by the pandemic. Many skeptics, however, view it as a cynical attempt to force people off the state’s unemployment rolls. The governor’s announcement has also been criticized by public health experts, the mayors of Georgia’s latest cities, and even some business owners.

The state has been under a stay-at-home order since April 3. Currently, Georgia has more than 21,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19, and the number remains on an upward trajectory. Nearly 900 Georgians have died of the virus.

“It’s a very big risk,” Dr. Marc Lipsitch, a professor of epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “If you open up enough, it’s almost for certain” the virus will hit Georgia again. “It’s just waiting for more susceptible people and more contacts. That’s how viruses work.”

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According to some models, Georgia is actually one of the last states that should be reopening. The state has tested less than 1 percent of its population—a rate below that of many other states and the national average—and nearly 22% of tests have come back positive so far, a rate well above many other states and the national average of 18%. 

While Kemp has gone the furthest in attempting to “reopen” his state, fellow Republican governors Bill Lee of Tennessee and Henry McMaster of South Carolina have also begun easing restrictions. Both Lee and McMaster have announced phased reopenings for when their stay-at-home orders expire at the end of April, arguing that residents must get back to work.

They’ve taken these steps despite warnings from economists that resuming normal activity too soon could result in more deaths and actually worsen the economic crisis. A March survey found that 80% of economists agreed that “abandoning severe lockdowns at a time when the likelihood of a resurgence in infections remains high” would lead to more economic damage than extending the “lockdowns” to reduce the risk of a second surge.

One possible explanation for the sudden desire to abandon stay-at-home orders and rush to reopen the economy is the increasing strain on state unemployment systems and the desire of Republicans to force people off unemployment. Roughly 26 million Americans have filed jobless claims in the past five weeks

Republicans have long railed against “big government” policies associated with providing residents a social safety net and a group of Republican senators even tried to block the $600-a-week expansion of benefits included in the first coronavirus relief bill, passed in March. 

Now, with a surge in claims, state unemployment funds are being crunched and Republicans, who fundamentally oppose raising taxes, are struggling to find a path forward that doesn’t include businesses reopening. But if businesses reopen and offer to rehire their employees, those workers will have to decide whether to return to work and risk their own health during a pandemic, or face the possibility of losing their benefits if they turn down their employer. 

“Voluntarily deciding to quit your job out of a general concern about exposure to COVID-19 does not make you eligible for [Pandemic Unemployment Assistance],” reads a statement on the Department of Labor’s website. A Department of Labor spokesperson told VICE News that employees who refuse to “return to work out of general safety concerns” will lose their unemployment benefits. 

There are some exceptions to these rules that are centered around those with what the Department of Labor describes as “credible health concerns.” For example, if you were diagnosed with COVID-19 and the illness caused health complications that left you unable to work, you are “likely to be eligible” for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance. Similarly, if you have a compromised immune system and your healthcare provider has advised you to self-quarantine over fears of exposure to coronavirus, you also may be eligible for benefits.

RELATED: 1 in 6 Americans Have Lost Their Jobs Because of Coronavirus

But with this and other gray areas, it’s ultimately left up to state unemployment offices to determine whether applicants are eligible for benefits, and as VICE noted, conservative states are more strict about approving benefits. 

These regulations are generally intended to discourage abuse of the system, but given current circumstances, it’s likely that these Republican governors will put workers in a situation where they could be forced to choose between their health and their economic survival. 

Anne Carder, managing attorney at the Atlanta Legal Aid Society told VICE on Wednesday that she’s “99.99 percent sure” that people won’t be eligible for unemployment benefits in Georgia if their businesses reopen and offer them work, but they choose not to return over fears of contracting the coronavirus. 

When reached for comment on Thursday, Carder told COURIER that she believed the only way these workers might be able to make a case to maintain their benefits is if they could provide documentation that their employer was unwilling or unable to provide any accommodations needed or failed to implement the standards required by the governor. 

Part-time workers might still be eligible for benefits, however, as long as they earn less than $300 per week, the new maximum a Georgia worker can make without losing jobless benefits.

Many critics have said that Kemp’s decision, and those of his fellow Republican governors, are not about public health but rather about preserving the state’s finances by kicking people off unemployment.

“The purpose of this isn’t to open up these businesses. It’s to get the workers there off the dole. Work, and die. Or don’t work … but you’re on your own,” public policy advocate George Chidi wrote for Decaturish.com. “Kemp is looking forward to the fiscal discussion in 2021 and 2022, when all of this really starts to hit.”

As of Jan. 1, Georgia’s unemployment fund had a total of $2.6 billion, according to a U.S. Department of Labor report. The Georgia Department of Labor issued nearly $42 million in unemployment benefits to 168,319 Georgians in the week ending April 4, and that number is likely to rise as more people lose their jobs. 

More than 1 million Georgians have already filed for unemployment during the coronavirus pandemic, and as the number of approved claims grows, the state’s unemployment fund will quickly begin to run low. That’s why Kemp is trying to push people off unemployment, according to Chidi.

Carder said she and her colleagues agreed that the desire to push people off the state’s unemployment rolls might be part of Kemp’s current decision making process.

“That has been discussed in our office,” Carder said. “We can’t think of any other reason why this would happen.”

Others who feel the same way have taken to Twitter to accuse Kemp and his fellow governors of wanting to take away people’s unemployment benefits. 

Despite the wave of criticism he’s faced, Kemp is standing by his decision and has insisted that the state is ready to reopen and that it will do so safely. 

It remains to be seen how Georgia’s “reopening” unfolds, but such hasty efforts are deeply unpopular among a majority of Americans. A recent Pew Research survey of 4,917 Americans found that 66% are worried state governments will lift restrictions on activities “too quickly.” Only 32% said they were concerned states would act too slowly.

This opposition to reopening is largely driven by the fear of contracting or spreading the coronavirus. Kristen Courville, a self-employed hairstylist in Alpharetta, Georgia, told Vox that while she needs money, she’s terrified of getting sick and doesn’t believe her clients will be eager to return anyway, given the up close and personal nature of her work. 

Courville has reluctantly laid out a plan to reopen, but still feels conflicted and scared, telling Vox: “I’m being forced to choose between my health and my job.”

Carder expressed a similar fear and said she did not plan on going to the movies or dining in at restaurants any time soon. She, like so many others, is worried Kemp’s decision will backfire. 

“My concern is, two weeks from tomorrow, we might see a spike in cases,” she said. “This has been incredibly short-sighted.”