Bart Kinney opened the doors to his bowling alley in Rome, Georgia, about an hour outside Atlanta, around 9 a.m. Friday. Waiting outside were three regulars, all league bowlers who, like many others, Kinney said, “have been dying to bowl.”
After Gov. Brian Kemp’s announcement on Monday that certain businesses like bowling alleys, tattoo and massage parlors, gyms, and hair and nail salons could begin reopening on Friday, Kinney immediately went to work. He put hand sanitizer dispensers at tables on each lane and lines of tape on the floor to remind customers to stay six feet apart when paying for their lanes and shoes and grabbing bowling balls.
“Our case count here hasn’t went up hardly at all in the last seven days,” Kinney told The Daily Beast, referring to the Rome area. “My employees wanted to work. They wanted to make a living. it’s gonna be a test.”
But it’s not just a test for Kinney’s business or others in his area—or even across Georgia. As residents of the first state to implement wide-scale reopening measures after sheltering in place, Georgians are effectively serving as a massive sample for officials across the country considering similar moves. Infectious disease and other experts have been warning for some time that it’s too soon to begin easing lockdowns amid a pandemic that has killed over 50,000 Americans and only recently shown signs of a flattening curve.
Business owners in the state are determined to prove the experts wrong.
“At some point we have to show that businesses can adapt and keep people safe, or else we’re gonna be right back here in another few months,” said David Rutherford, president of Gold Cup Bowling in the city of Warner-Robins. “If we didn’t feel like we could do it safely and responsibly, we wouldn’t be reopening.”
Georgia faces a dilemma: While the number of new coronavirus cases reported by the State Department of Public Health has dropped each of the last four days, the number of cases has gone up in the last two weeks. That’s a key timeframe in which the White House says states want to see a leveling off of positive tests.
But Kemp’s executive order allowing certain businesses to reopen wasn’t just in defiance of federal guidance or—depending on whose word you take—President Trump’s. It also seemed to fly in the face of past shortcomings in testing and contact tracing in the state.
According to The New York Times, just 1 percent of state residents had been tested for COVID-19 as of earlier this week. Testing has been increasing substantially in recent days, according to Dr. Jose Vazquez, chief of infectious disease at the Medical College of Georgia—Augusta University. In the same time period, hospital admissions at Augusta and other hospital systems statewide have dropped by half, he added, on the encouraging side of the ledger.
“What we’re seeing is a lot of these new admissions are younger people who are not as sick,” Vazquez told The Daily Beast. “It would not surprise me to see the number of coronavirus cases in the state go up because we have really jacked up our testing. I mean, it was pitiful.”
Vazquez actually credited Kemp, who came to the university and insisted the number of tests be increased, for offering new resources to aid in that effort. Still, last week, Georgia ranked 46th among states in its level of testing.
“Maybe the governor decided, ‘Boy that looks pretty crappy, the number of testing,’” Vazquez said. “Maybe it was peer pressure, I don’t know! He came to us and said, 'We really need to get that number up.'”
But many businesses across the state have said they’ll ignore Kemp’s order and remain closed. Mark Lebos, owner of Strong Gym in Savannah, said now is not the time to even begin to consider reopening the gym he’s run for the last decade, despite the positive news on hospital admissions and testing.
“None of the data is something that I can point to and say that justifies a decision to reopen as an absolute,” he told The Daily Beast. “What do you need before you start risking your 70-plus-year-old clients?”
“We’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback from the community on the decision to wait,” Lebos added. “We will get that same positive feedback when we decide to reopen.”