In Georgia and elsewhere in South, governors begin lifting coronavirus restrictions

"I think our citizens are ready for this," Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp said.

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By Tim Stelloh

Some governors in the South have begun loosening restrictions put in place to contain the spread of coronavirus.

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp on Monday granted businesses across the state permission to reopen later this week, an announcement echoed by a handful of other Republican governors who are beginning to lift stay-at-home orders.

Kemp's decision, which will apply to barbershops, gyms and other businesses that include close contact, comes days after President Donald Trump issued guidelines to reopen state economies. Protesters across the country have been gathering at rallies outside state capitals demanding an end to shutdown orders.

In a series of tweets last week, the president called for demonstrators to "LIBERATE" certain states.

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Some health experts have expressed concern that it's too early to be backing off lockdown measures.

South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster said Monday that beaches and retail stores can reopen Tuesday. Businesses including sporting good shops and florists will have to observe social distancing guidelines that limit how many customers can shop at once, he said.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee said he won't extend the state's stay-at-home order beyond April 30, while state parks can reopen Friday. Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts said elective surgery will resume May 4.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott made a similar announcement Friday.

Kemp said Georgia theaters, restaurants and social clubs can reopen Monday, while bars, nightclubs and concert venues will remain closed. He said the state appeared to be on track to meet the first phase of Trump's guidelines, which were developed by the administration's public health officials and recommend a "downward trajectory of documented cases within a 14-day period."

"Reports of ER visits for flu-like illnesses are declining, documented COVID-19 cases have flattened and appear to be declining, and we have seen declining ER visits in general," Kemp said. He called testing for the disease a "key component" of reopening and said the state is seeking to expand its ability to test people with and without symptoms.

Reopened businesses will also be subject to guidelines that include wearing gloves and masks "if appropriate" and maintaining a distance of 6 feet from other people, he said.

Volunteers load food into vehicles during a mobile market day at Atlanta Motor Speedway in Hampton, Ga., on Friday, April 17, 2020.Kevin C. Cox / Getty Images

Kemp ordered the shuttering of businesses across the state April 1, saying he did so after having learned that the virus could be transmitted by asymptomatic carriers — a possibility that public health experts had been warning of since January.

Georgia has recorded nearly 19,000 confirmed cases, one of the highest tallies in the region, and more than 700 people have died, according to data collected by NBC News.

Data compiled by John Hopkins University showed that the number of cases in Georgia rose from 7,300 on April 6 to just over 18,000 on Sunday.

Asked during a news conference whether the measures could trigger more cases and lead to another cycle of shuttering businesses, Kemp said he'd consulted with experts about the state's "measured" approach.

"It's not just throwing the keys back to business owners," he said, adding: "I think our citizens are ready for this."

"People know what social distancing is," he said. "They're learning what mitigation was when we went through it and are still trying to do."

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But Gerardo Chowell, an epidemiologist at Georgia State University's School of Public Health in Atlanta, worried that Kemp's measures are coming too soon. He said that the state appeared to have just passed its peak in confirmed cases and that reopening without adequate public health measures could lead to another wave of infections.

"If we go back to business as usual, it's going to happen," he said.

Before reopening, he said, the state needs to launch a rigorous contact tracing effort, offer robust support for telecommuting and remote learning, and mandate masks in public.

"This takes time, and you need to communicate it," Chowell said. "You need to launch a communication campaign to inform the public how our new life will be. That doesn't happen in a couple of days."

Stacey Abrams, Kemp's gubernatorial challenger in 2018, ridiculed the governor for the move, saying the state has a low testing rate, a high infection rate, a health care system in shambles and thousands of low-wage workers "forced to risk their lives to make a living."

"Reopen?" Abrams tweeted. "Dangerously incompetent."