Georgia's decision to reopen businesses during a pandemic is a slap in the face to mothers

The people the governor plans to force back to work are likely to be mothers, putting entire families as risk so a few people can bowl and get tattoos.
Image: Brian Kemp
Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp at a news conference at the state Capitol in Atlanta on April 8, 2020.Brynn Anderson / AP file
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By Jennifer Gerson

When Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp announced Monday that many personal services businesses in the state would be allowed to reopen starting Friday, I immediately thought: What about the mothers?

With the governor’s decision to reopen businesses such as hair and nail salons, tattoo parlors, restaurants, gyms and bowling alleys this week and next, I am gravely concerned — and do not understand why he is not — for what this means for those mothers whose place of employment are reopening despite no progress having been made on a mass testing program and no vaccine having been produced yet. (Even President Trump, who has been agitating to reopen things practically since he urged them to closed, reportedly told Kemp on Wednesday that he disagreed with Kemp's decision.)

According to data compiled by the Fuller Project from 17 state labor departments, women have accounted for the majority of new unemployment claims in each state, and women’s share of new unemployment claims surged disproportionately in the last month. Women generally made up the majority of low- and minimum-wage workers before the pandemic, and were also the overwhelming majority of workers who earned less than $10 an hour. While women of all races made up the majority of low-wage workers, Black and Latinx women were disproportionately overrepresented in this segment of the workforce. Furthermore, 32 percent of women earning $11 an hour or less have at least one child at home; the same is true for 25 percent of women who hold jobs that pay less than $10 an hour.

In other words, by sending hairdressers, nail salon technicians, tattoo parlor workers, restaurant staffers, gym workers and bowling alley employees back to work, Kemp is sending a lot of mothers back to work, forcing them to make unfathomable choices at a dangerous time.

For those who were briefly able to qualify for unemployment when these kinds of businesses temporarily shuttered, that access to reliable, stable income to support their families will no longer be in play after Friday or Monday. That means they either have to accept unemployment sans benefits, if they want to have to remain home with their children (and away from the risk of infection), or return to providing often hands-on personal services at great personal risk.

And, when we think about what businesses will be reopening across Georgia on the governor's say-so, it’s fair to say that a significant proportion of those workers — who will now be forced to choose between their safety and and keeping food on the table for their family — will be women, and they will be mothers, and they will be Black or Latinx mothers. And given the ongoing shortages of personal protective equipment in hospitals across our state, it seems safe to assume that Georgia isn’t going to be supplying fast-food workers, nail technicians or bowling alley attendants with protective equipment so that they can do their jobs any more safely than the health care, pharmacy and grocery store workers — also often women and mothers — we've already left woefully unprotected.

Not to mention that while Kemp has opted to ensure that people in our state can exercise their right to bowl, be tattooed, get massaged and be infected with/infected others with the coronavirus as much as they wish during an unprecedented pandemic, he has not reopened our state’s schools, which remain closed for the remainder of the school year in Georgia. Most public schools here normally return from summer vacation the first or second week of August, and it is presumed that schools will reopen as usual then, but nothing is set in stone at this point. Meanwhile, day care centers remain closed so far.

So the women who must decide whether to keep themselves and their children physically safe or economically stable are also likely to find it necessary to leave school-age children at home by themselves should they wish to keep earning — or with other people, thereby further exposing their families to potential infection by breaking social distancing even more. With bowling alleys open but not child care centers, too many mothers in Georgia will be forced into an impossible situation when it comes to not only their own health and safety, but that of their children.

And, many, many of those mothers and children will be Black or brown.

It almost makes you wonder if it's just a coincidence that our state — which says it's "pro-life" — ranks 49th out of 50 when it comes to Black women’s maternal mortality rates and has continually opted not to expand Medicaid, keeping low-income families (who are disproportionately people of color in Georgia) barred from any meaningful, affordable access to the health care system. Let’s not forget that just this fall, Kemp announced that Medicaid expansion would be on the table only if coupled with a work requirement.

And though we were significantly undercounting COVID-19 deaths as of just last week (despite guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and our health department is not accurately tracking racial disparities, it should worry us that 54 percent of the known coronavirus cases so far in the state are women, and that, in the 60 percent of cases where the race of the patients is known, 65 percent of coronavirus patients are people of color in a state that is 60 percent white.

I worry that “reopening” the state so people can get their nails done and eat out will only make this worse.

I know that, like many of the people Kemp's order seeks to curry favor with, my family is immensely, almost unconscionably privileged. I live in suburban Atlanta, and my partner and I both worked from home before the pandemic started and are able to still do so now. We have jobs. We have a house. We have access to food and gas … and Disney+ for my daughter, who hasn’t physically attended school since March 12.

The days are hard, but we are stupidly, outrageously lucky. Which is why I felt absolutely panicked for the other mothers in my state when I heard about Kemp’s plan — not because they are not, but because they have kids, like mine, who need and deserve healthy moms and a measure of economic stability.

It wasn't that long ago that our state garnered national news coverage after people like Kemp insisted that an attempted ban on all abortion after six weeks gestational age was necessary to show reverence for the lives of not-yet-born children.

Where are the concerns for those children whose parents are being forced back to work, leaving them at home and potentially exposed to a deadly virus? Where is the reverence for life as we are asking people to risk theirs so that some small number of selfish people can go bowling and get massages? Where is all this deference to the sanctity of life when saying that people ought to be willing to die for the good of the economy?

As a mother, I can say without reservation that I'm not thinking about my split ends today, or whether my retirement account is doing OK. I am thinking about the mothers who are going to have to make an excruciating choice in the days ahead, to risk their lives to provide other people's petty comforts, or risk what little economic stability they have to preserve their health. I only wish more mothers — and fathers — in the state were thinking the same.