ATLANTA — Friday morning began like every other in Georgia’s month-long quarantine. Atlanta’s usually-jammed freeways stretched wide open from Hartsfield-Jackson Airport south of town to Lake Lanier in the north. The sound of birds chirping was far louder than the hum of traffic. Most residents continued to stay at home under the state’s shelter-in-place order, even though Georgia’s governor had just lifted restrictions on certain businesses.
Across Atlanta, white sheets of paper are taped to the doors of almost every business in the city, each bearing some version of “Due to the COVID-19 pandemic” and “Closed until further notice.” Outdoor tables that would normally be packed with diners sit empty from Alpharetta to Buckhead to Little Five Points. Electronic signs over the highways leading into and out of the city display COVID-19 safety messages, and posters featuring health advice are glued to lampposts and walls all over the city.
Almost all of the few people walking the streets wear masks. The only people out in force on a beautiful Friday afternoon in Georgia were construction workers — taking advantage of this slowdown to pursue roadwork that would otherwise paralyze the city — and police officers.
The largest, busiest city in the South doesn’t yet seem ready to come out of quarantine, no matter what its governor says.
Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp drew the attention of the nation earlier this week when he announced that the state would begin a phased re-opening of businesses, not in June or May, but right now. Friday marked the first day that a range of businesses, from tattoo parlors to barber shops, could reopen to the public.
“With favorable data and approval from state health officials,” Kemp tweeted Thursday, “we are taking another measured step forward by opening shuttered businesses for limited operations. I know these hardworking Georgians will prioritize the safety of their employees and customers.”
The governor’s order allows businesses such as gyms, bowling alleys, tattoo shops, barbershops and salons, and cosmetology schools to reopen using “in-person Minimum Basic Operations.” Businesses must adhere to 20 safety procedures, including screening for fever and implementing social distancing, and no more than 10 people can be inside a business unless they can remain six feet apart at all times … with certain obvious exceptions.
Restaurants will reopen Monday, and churches can hold in-person services with appropriate social distancing. Bars, amusement parks and schools will remain closed.
Some businesses took immediate advantage of the governor’s order. At Peachtree Battle Barber Shop in Buckhead, customers in desperate need of a haircut lined up to be among the first in the door when the shop opened at 7 a.m. Also present: a WSB-TV truck that had shown up at 4:30 in the morning, along with journalists from CNN and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Customers waited outside the barbershop’s doors at appropriate social distances, entering the store only one at a time. Even as customers sat for haircuts Friday morning, the phone rang again and again. Some came from critics of the owner’s decision to stay open, others from supporters applauding his stance.
“I’m just ready to participate in America again, using common sense,” said one customer who identified himself as “Rob from Atlanta.” “I just feel it’s time to get back to work using common sense and best practices.”
A few miles south, at Little Five Points’ Long Island Ink, one of the only tattoo parlors that reopened, a customer received what was undoubtedly one of the first post-quarantine tattoos: a skeleton with an astronaut helmet.
As for the question of why reopen at all, Long Island Ink’s Chucky Brice said it comes down to a simple fact: “We’ve got to get paid.” Uncertainty about the feasibility of a small-business loan — plus concern about the repayment terms — led Long Island Ink’s owner to opt for reopening, under sterile conditions, rather than stay closed and ride out the quarantine.
“We’re a tattoo parlor, so we’re already sanitary,” Brice said. “But we’re sanitizing everything, not letting more than one person in the shop, not letting anyone linger around.”
Small signs of life are present all over the city. Many restaurants sported enormous new TAKEOUT AND DELIVERY signs, with smaller independent joints asking Atlantans to BUY LOCAL. A small demonstration in favor of the governor’s announcement kicked off in front of the state Capitol at noon, but there were nearly as many journalists (four) as demonstrators (five) present.
North of Atlanta, in Roswell, a nail salon hummed along almost like normal … with the notable exception that everyone in the salon, customer and technician alike, wore a mask. The salon checked temperatures at the door and asked clients to sanitize their hands upon entry. Across the street, a once-popular gym remained closed, lights out.
“There does need to be a balance between health, economy and liberty,” Rob from Atlanta said. “Maybe not evenly balanced, but all of them need to be in the equation.”
Kemp’s move is the most divisive in the administration of a governor who took office under a cloud of election-day uncertainty. Aside from the obvious jokes about opening bowling alleys and massage parlors in the midst of a pandemic, the call to restart the state’s economy has drawn intense criticism not just from Georgia mayors politically opposed to Kemp, but Republican leadership all the way up to President Donald Trump.
“Would I [reopen the state]? No,” Trump said on Wednesday when asked about Kemp’s plan. “I want to protect people’s lives. But I’m going to let him make his decision. But I told him I totally disagree.”
New COVID-19 cases in Georgia have fallen from a high of 843 on April 14 to 30 on April 23, according to the Georgia Department of Public Health, but the governor’s critics fear that reopening the state will undo the progress that social distancing made on decreasing those numbers.
“There is a danger of a rebound,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said Wednesday. “Going ahead and leapfrogging into phases where you should not be, I would advise him, as a health official and a physician, not to do that.”
“Our numbers are not going down,” Atlanta mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms told MSNBC’s Chuck Todd earlier this week. “And simply because we have hospital beds available, doesn’t mean that we should work to fill them up. I am asking people to please stay home … there’s nothing essential about going to a bowling alley in the middle of a pandemic.”
Many of the city’s bowling alleys appear to agree.
“It would be irresponsible for us to re-open before the virus has been reasonably contained,” said Robert Thompson, CEO of Punch Bowl Social, which has an Atlanta location near the Braves’ Truist Park. “The physical and mental wellness of our team members and guests is paramount. As such, we will be making our business decisions based on the CDC’s data rather than municipal suggestions.”
“At this time, we cannot reasonably assure, given the current status of the pandemic in Georgia, that we can open Midtown Bowl and ensure operational standards are met,” Midtown Bowl, an Atlanta landmark, said in a statement to Yahoo. “Before opening, we would require a secure supply chain — for food and personal protective equipment — to be in place to allow for the well-being and confidence of our guests and teammates.”
The prospect of potentially infectious gym-goers sweating all over equipment apparently caused many gym franchises to pursue a more prudent option. All across Atlanta, Orangetheory, Planet Fitness, Anytime Fitness and LA Fitness outlets remained closed. “After careful consideration,” Planet Fitness said in a statement, “we have decided to remain closed for the time being as we continue to assess local guidelines and health recommendations and prepare for reopening.”
Other businesses were more succinct. “S—’s crazy, we ain’t,” wrote Southern Star Tattoo on its Facebook page earlier this week. “Hope to see ya soon but NOT this Friday!”
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee or contact him with tips and story ideas at [email protected]