WAYCROSS, Ga. —Only a handful of the 18 hairdressers who work at Salon Cheveux came in on Friday. They donned masks, spaced their workstations apart and screened inbound customers by phone with the dedication of hospital admission nurses: Any fever recently? Or contact with someone sick? Can you wear a mask?
It was the first day businesses reopened in Georgia, which is moving faster than any other state to ease restrictions amid the novel coronavirus pandemic. As a result, Georgia has become a flash point in the battle over whether it is time to remove the shutdown orders that have kept much of the country indoors.
Jamie McQuaig glanced at the two cosmetologists, clad in masks, coloring customers’ hair and wondered whether coming back to work was the right decision for her family, her salon or her state.
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“I do feel like it’s too soon, but it will probably always feel like it’s too soon because we’re all scared of the virus,” she said. The nation’s response to the pandemic has left many in her shop with difficult choices. “The ones that are going back to work right now are the ones that have got to. They’ve got to feed their children. They’ve got to pay their mortgage.”
Gov. Brian Kemp (R) was one of the last governors to issue a statewide stay-at-home order to help stem the spread of the coronavirus; it went into effect April 3. Now, Kemp is opening more businesses more quickly than anywhere else, bucking experts who warn that doing so could lead to an increase in the number of coronavirus deaths.
Friday was the first day bowling alleys, tattoo parlors, gyms and salons were allowed to reopen, provided they follow social distancing guidelines, take employees’ temperatures and screen them for signs of illness. Movie theaters and dine-in restaurants will follow suit on Monday, three days before the state’s shelter-in-place order expires.
Georgians tiptoeing back to work in those industries acknowledge they are essentially guinea pigs as governments experiment with how to return the nation to normal. After weeks of unemployment, often with uneven government help, some said they are happy to be earning paychecks but worry about the ultimate costs of abandoning isolation too soon.
They will not be worrying alone for long. Tennessee’s governor has said he will allow many businesses to reopen once his shelter-in-place order expires next week. The governor of South Carolina allowed some retail stores to reopen this week. People have been walking on the beaches near Jacksonville, Fla., for a week.
Kemp said his decision to reopen much of the state was based on scientific data that showed declines in the number of confirmed cases of the virus. But his approach has drawn criticism from infectious-disease experts and political leaders alike who warn his actions could lead to the resurgence of a virus that has killed more than 50,000 Americans in a matter of weeks. Among the critics: the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which is based in Atlanta, the city’s mayor and President Trump, who said he told Kemp he disagrees with the decision.
“I think spas and beauty salons and tattoo parlors and barbershops in phase one — we’re going to have phase two very soon — is just too soon,” Trump said Wednesday.
Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms (D) has encouraged city residents to ignore Kemp’s order.
“More than 19,000 Georgians have tested positive for covid-19 and the numbers continue to increase,” Bottoms said in a statement. “It is the governor’s prerogative to make this decision for the state, but I will continue to urge Atlanta to stay at home, stay safe and make decisions based on the best interests of their families.”
Infectious disease experts have urged states rushing to reopen to slow down. Carlos del Rio, executive associate dean of the Emory University School of Medicine at Grady Health System, said Georgia has increased the number of people it is testing for the coronavirus, but not at the scale needed to reopen.
Del Rio said he continues to have concerns “about opening some of the businesses like nail salons. . . . I’m certainly not going to go out and get a haircut.”
More than 22,000 people have tested positive for covid-19 in Georgia, and nearly 900 have died from it. The state has tested less than 1 percent of its residents. Georgia has also not met some of the White House’s benchmarks for reopening a state, including a downward trajectory of confirmed cases over 14 days. It also has a large outbreak of the virus in Dougherty County, where more than 1,400 people have tested positive and 108 have died.
One model anticipates the state won’t reach its peak of positive cases until the end of April.
Kemp’s move is driven in part by a desire to reignite the state’s wheezing economy. In more than a month since the crisis began, more than a fifth of the state’s workforce has filed for unemployment, including 244,000 claims last week.
But epidemiologists say continued restrictions of public gatherings — along with aggressive contact tracing and beefed-up testing — are the best defense against a virus with no vaccine and no cure.
McQuaig feels the tug from both sides of the argument. She said she supports Kemp’s efforts to stop the economic hemorrhaging. Every month Salon Cheveux is closed, her business will lose nearly $50,000.
But her 8-year-old daughter, Lauren, has asthma, which is thought to put people at a higher risk of developing severe complications from the coronavirus. McQuaig’s family has had little contact with anyone outside their home in more than a month. She is now worried about the consequences of spending too much time in a roomful of customers.
“I can’t take the risk of coming back to work and taking it home to her,” she said of Lauren. “She gets pneumonia from just a common cold. I’m so scared of coming back too soon.”
But Mary Hollis, the owner of Caffeinated CrossFit in Smyrna, Ga., northwest of Atlanta, believes her business should have reopened much sooner. She has lobbied for authorities to label her gym a “preventive health-care facility,” arguing that keeping people in shape can help them fight the virus, especially because obesity is an underlying medical condition that can exacerbate covid-19.
Hollis has long been a critic of the extensive measures to stem the spread of the coronavirus. “To me, the solution became worse than the problem.”
In-person classes will resume in full on Monday, with a broad range of health and safety requirements Hollis developed with other gym owners, even making a YouTube video with instructions on the gym’s new normal. Gymgoers will have their temperatures checked and must stand six feet apart from one another at stations marked by tape on the ground. Trainers will favor body weight exercise over using equipment that gets passed from person to person.
When Stacia Familo-Hopek and her husband, Rob Hopek, saw Kemp’s news conference about reopening dine-in restaurants, they looked at each other in surprise. “Nope. Not gonna happen,” Hopek recalled the two saying to each other.
Familo-Hopek owns The Lost Druid, a brewery and taproom that serves food in Avondale Estates, Ga., just east of Atlanta.
They’ve furloughed almost all of their cook staff, and revenue is down since they shifted to offering takeout food and canned beer. They don’t distribute their beer in grocery stores, a revenue cushion that other breweries have.
“Obviously, we want to get business owners back in business so they’re not financially strapped. We also want the government to not be strapped because of unprecedented unemployment. But I just don’t think it’s going to work,” Familo-Hopek said. “The customers aren’t ready to come out and sit down.”
When they do feel comfortable enough to reopen, Familo-Hopek said it will be a phased approach, bringing back a few employees at first and likely offering limited outside seating.
But for now, they worry what could happen if a second spike of cases occurs.
“It could really tarnish your reputation if [we’re] contributing to that,” Familo-Hopek said.
Quaadir Larke, wearing a mask and surgical gloves, a pair of hospital-grade disinfectant wipes at his feet, trimmed a single customer’s hair at the Quad Barber Shop in Mableton.
He applied for federal small-business relief loans, but didn’t get any. He and his wife, a nurse, are still waiting on their stimulus checks, and their family of seven eats through $150 of groceries a week. When he announced on Instagram that the shop would reopen, the reaction was swift and harsh.
“Some of them are too scared, some of them just want to wait. They think it’s too soon,” Larke said. “I think it’s too soon personally. I’m here because I’ve got to be. It’s like I’m stuck.”
McQuaig, the salon owner, concedes that the conflicting advice from politicians has left business owners with little more to do than roll the dice. While she has reopened her shop, she doesn’t plan to touch a customer’s hair until June. Instead, she will direct clients to a working stylist and supervise them — but that’s as close as she will get.
Despite the limited contact, McQuaig is still worried — and has thought out a system for keeping her daughter safe from whatever germs enter the shop.
Before she leaves each day, she plans to spray alcohol into the air and walk through the cloud of droplets. She’ll leave her shoes outside her home, and plop her clothes into the washer. Then she’ll throw her face mask into the dryer, which she hopes will blast away any germs.
She’s not sure whether the new regimen will be enough to calm her fears.
“For 10 days or 14 days, I’ll be worried. Have I come in contact with anyone [infected]? . . . Have I brought it home?”