Georgia governor's decision to start reopening state draws mixed reactions from business owners

"The fact that he said it's OK to open doesn't mean that the virus transmission is different or that less people will die," one business owner said.

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By Janelle Griffith

The reaction among Georgia business owners and public officials to Gov. Brian Kemp's decision to reopen some businesses during the coronavirus pandemic has been decidedly mixed.

Some business owners welcomed the opportunity to reopen their doors, grateful to be able to avoid layoffs, while others questioned the parameters outlined by the state and whether they are enough to protect customers and staff.

Sabra Dupree, owner of Kids Kuts Salon in Marietta, where she lives, said her business will operate quite differently when it reopens Friday.

Instead of eight workstations, the salon will now have six. She rearranged them so they are more than several feet apart. And rather than have as many as five stylists on the floor at a time, no more than two will be scheduled to work each day. Dupree said she will also be checking customers' temperatures before letting them inside the salon. Anyone with a fever will be turned away. Everyone will be required to wear masks, and customers who do not have one have the option to buy one. She will also be monitoring employees' health.

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Dupree said she has removed all toys and books from the waiting area and was forced to temporarily lay off her receptionist to avoid having another person in the 1,000-square-foot shop. That decision was a painful one, because her staff and clients are like family to her, she said.

Dupree will no longer be taking walk-ins, and all reservations must be made online. Dupree said she has already lost about 25 percent of her annual profit while the salon has been closed.

She recognizes that not everyone supports the governor's decision, announced Monday, which would allow gyms, bowling alleys, hair and nail salons and massage and tattoo parlors to reopen Friday if they follow strict social distancing and hygiene requirements.

"I have two stylists who won't come in until they see if we have more cases," she said, referring to the state's coronavirus cases. "I don't blame them."

She also does not fault Kemp.

"I don't think the governor is doing something wrong," she said in a telephone interview Tuesday. "Because it's your choice to stay home."

Dupree, 56, said her husband, who works at an auto body shop, is deemed an essential worker, so she has not suffered as much financially as many of her stylists because of the shelter-in-place order. Dupree said she applied and was approved for a small-business loan through the Paycheck Protection Program and planned to help her staff with any money she received. But the program ran out of money in two weeks, before she received any aid.

She has accepted that this will be her new reality, she said. Any way you cut it, the salon had to adapt.

"I don't foresee this setup will change in 90 days," Dupree said. "I feel like my business as I know it is gone."

Tara Villalvazo, 36, who lives in Acworth, a city in Cobb County, is a tattoo and permanent makeup artist. She owns Mystic Owl Tattoo in Marietta.

She said it was negligent for Kemp to allow businesses to reopen Friday, especially those like hers that provide personal care services. When she applies permanent makeup on customers, they breathe in her face.

"My question for him is, how do you tattoo someone who is 6 feet away?" she said.

Villalvazo said she fears for the safety of the entire state.

"It makes me scared for clients and other people who will open because they feel that it's OK," she said. "The fact that he said it's OK to open doesn't mean that the virus transmission is different or that less people will die."

She said she stopped working before the governor issued a statewide shelter-in-place order and that supplies she uses, such as nitrile gloves, surgical masks and face shields, are now impossible to come by.

"I didn't rely on his guidance to close. I sure as hell won't be relying on him to tell me when to reopen," she said.

Albany Mayor Bo Dorough, whose city is at the center of one of Georgia's biggest outbreaks, said Kemp's decision was dangerous.

"We are not ready for this," he told NBC News on Tuesday, adding that "it is misguided for the governor to prevent local governments from implementing measures to protect the health and safety of their citizens."

There were 60 people on ventilators in Albany, Dorough said Tuesday, and 15 funerals were held in Dougherty County over the weekend.

"It is a positive development that fewer people are being admitted with COVID symptoms," Dorough said. "But we are not out of the woods, and it is irresponsible for the governor to take these measures."

There were 19,981 coronavirus cases in Georgia on Tuesday, with 799 deaths.

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Dorough said he planned to ask the governor to make an exception for Albany. He also said he is sympathetic to people living paycheck to paycheck who want to return to work and to business owners worried that they could not survive the state shutdown.

"I understand the concerns that people have. I realized that is a factor that the governor considered," Dorough said. "But as I've said before, he had a difficult decision. Unfortunately, I think he made the wrong one."

Savannah Mayor Van Johnson and Atlanta Mayor Keisha Bottoms both said in interviews that they had no warning of the governor's decision to reopen.

Johnson said the decision is "not based in any type of science or best practices." Bottoms said that the governor's order supersedes anything she can do as mayor but that she will continue to ask Atlantans to stay at home.

"I understand it is extremely concerning when people don't know how they will eat and how they will pay their bills, but these are concerns that you have when you are amongst the living," Bottoms told ABC News. "And if we don't continue to distance ourselves, if we don't heed what we've seen happen in other cities, our population will be at risk."

The biggest outbreak in the state came from two funerals in Albany, Bottoms said. "So for us to go back to opening up houses of worship just seems a bit premature to me," she said.

Kemp said Monday that he was seeing "great improvement" in Albany. He said restaurants limited to takeout orders could return to limited dine-in service April 27.

Some businesses posted their decisions not to do so on social media.

Home.made, a restaurant in Athens, about 70 miles northeast of Atlanta, is one such business.

"Out of concern for the health of our staff, our customers, our families and our community, Home.made will continue with curbside service until this unprecedented health crisis is under control," owner Mimi Maumus wrote in an announcement on the restaurant's Instagram page. "We are eager to get back to work but cannot, in good conscience, participate in reopening."

Autumn Weaver, 42, of Athens, a manager at the restaurant, said Maumus texted the staff shortly after the governor's announcement to inform them that the restaurant would not offer dine-in service Monday. "The text put us all at ease," Weaver said.

"All the information we have is for us to maintain social distancing to stay safe," Weaver said. "The numbers still are fluctuating."

Weaver said that before the pandemic, the restaurant had a staff of 30 people. It is now down to six employees.

"In the restaurant industry, within a couple of days, we went from business as normal to having to lay off the majority of our staff," Weaver said. "To suddenly reverse course seems very counter to all the things medical experts are saying."