ATLANTA (Reuters) – With the U.S. coronavirus death toll topping 50,000, Georgia pushed ahead with its plan to become the first state to allow an array of small businesses to reopen on Friday despite the disapproval of President Donald Trump and health experts.
Gyms, hair salons, tattoo parlors and some other businesses were cleared to open their doors by Georgia Governor Brian Kemp, who disregarded warnings from public health experts that relaxing restrictions could lead to a surge in infections of the novel coronavirus and more deaths.
The southern U.S. state has become a flashpoint in the debate over how quickly the country should get back to work.
U.S. Representative Doug Collins from Georgia, a Republican like the governor, said reopening on Friday was confusing for customers.
“Everyone’s supposed to be staying home, but yet we’re opening up these businesses,” Collins told Fox News. He cited federal guidelines calling for states to experience a two-week decline in cases first, and said parts of Georgia were still struggling to treat patients.
The Republican Trump has given mixed signals about when and how the country should begin to get back to work after weeks in lockdown. This month he called for Democratic governors in big states to “liberate” their citizens from the stay-at-home orders but, in a reversal, he told a news conference this week he disapproved of Georgia’s move to reopen.
The number of Americans known to be infected surpassed 875,000, with 50,000 deaths from COVID-19, the highly contagious respiratory illness caused by the coronavirus, according to a Reuters tally.
Late on Thursday Trump sparked fresh confusion over the prospects for treating COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus, suggesting that scientists should investigate whether patients might be cured by ingesting disinfectant.
Georgia is the first state to embark on a widespread reopening, although Oklahoma was also opening some retail businesses on Friday, Florida started allowing people to visit some of its beaches last Friday, South Carolina began to ease restrictions on Monday and other states will relax guidelines next week.
Governors in many states are eager to get their economies back in gear. The lockdowns have exacted a severe toll, with U.S. Labor Department data released on Thursday showing 26.5 million Americans had sought jobless benefits over the last five weeks.
Despite the lost revenues, not all eligible businesses in Georgia are jumping at the chance to reopen. Shay Cannon, owner of Liberty Tattoo in Atlanta, said he would reopen in May by appointment only and did not foresee a return to normal until June or later.
“We are not opening today, we feel it is too soon,” Cannon told Reuters. “We’re just watching the numbers and doing what seems right to us.”
Jasmine Maskell, owner of Timeless Tattoo in Atlanta, said she was not opening on Friday but would slowly resume business over the next couple of weeks under strict precautions.
The shop would operate as if everyone is infected, Maskell said. “We will just operate under that notion and then we can keep everyone safe here.”
Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, who has repeatedly criticized Kemp’s push to reopen businesses, told the ABC News “Good Morning America” program that Georgia did not have the hospital capacity to handle the outbreak and warned of a second wave of cases.
“It’s necessary that we continue to distance ourselves,” she told ABC. “There are some who are willing to sacrifice lives for the sake of the economy and that’s unacceptable to me.”
According to a model maintained by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington, which is used by the White House, hospitalizations in Georgia will peak next week.
Oklahoma plans to open hair and nail salons, barber shops and other personal care businesses on Friday, and will expand the easing of restrictions to restaurants, churches and gyms on May 1. Governor Kevin Stitt has said businesses need to maintain space for customers to adhere to social distancing guidelines.
With far fewer cases and deaths than Georgia, the IHME model predicts that Oklahoma already hit its hospitalizations peak on Tuesday and could loosen restrictions on June 17.
Tennessee reopened most of its 56 state parks on Friday, ahead of the partial reopening of restaurants and retail outlets next week.
Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer on Friday extended her stay-at-home order through May 15 as the Midwestern state battles to control the pandemic, but she lifted restrictions so some businesses can open and the public can participate in outdoor activities such as golfing.
Whitmer, a Democrat, has been criticized by some Michigan residents and Republican lawmakers for being too restrictive in her lockdown of the state.
At his media briefing on Thursday, Trump said scientists should explore whether inserting light or disinfectant into the bodies of people infected with COVID-19 might serve as a “cleaning” and clear the disease.
The comments prompted doctors and health experts to issue warnings to the public not to drink or inject disinfectant, while Lysol and Dettol maker Reckitt Benckiser (RB.L) felt compelled to issue a statement of its own.
“Under no circumstance should our disinfectant products be administered into the human body (through injection, ingestion or any other route),” the company said.
Reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta, Nathan Layne in Wilton, Connecticut, Susan Heavey in Washington and Jessica Resnick-Ault in New York; Writing by Nathan Layne and Alistair Bell; Editing by Frank McGurty and Howard Goller