Georgia County Steels Itself to Reopen Despite 10% Death Rate

Husband and wife Andrew Tran and Kathy Luong worked late into the evening Wednesday, affixing acrylic partitions to the nail-technician stations at their business, Bartow Nails & Spa, in Cartersville, Georgia.

When they open for business after a nearly month-long shutdown, they’ll hand out face masks to a limited number of customers who will slip their hands under the partitions to staff wearing face shields. Eager to return to work, the couple is also nervous: This well-off, heavily Republican part of Georgia suffered a fast-moving outbreak of Covid-19 last month — and one of the highest death rates in the state.

They would have preferred to wait a few weeks, but “we feel like if other nail salons open and we don’t, we’ll lose customers,” Tran said.

Georgia is reopening for business more aggressively than any state in the U.S., after being one the last to order a statewide shutdown. Earlier this week, Governor Brian Kemp blindsided both mayors and businesses when he announced that nail salons, gyms, hairdressers, bowling alleys and gyms could open Friday as long as they follow protocols to protect the public. Restaurants and movie theaters can follow three days later.

Two other southern states — South Carolina and Tennessee — are also moving fast, though neither has had nearly the number of Covid-19 cases as Georgia, which had 21,512 confirmed cases and 872 deaths as of Thursday.

28,819 in U.S.Most new cases today

-18% Change in MSCI World Index of global stocks since Wuhan lockdown, Jan. 23

-1.​125 Change in U.S. treasury bond yield since Wuhan lockdown, Jan. 23

-0.​5% Global GDP Tracker (annualized), March

Kemp’s plan has been widely criticized as risky, even by fellow Republicans including President Donald Trump, who told the Georgia governor Wednesday that he was moving too fast. Democratic mayors in Atlanta, Savannah and Albany, which had one of the worst outbreaks in the U.S., have complained about the order itself and the fact that they didn’t know it was coming.

The reopening also has ignited racial tensions in the state, where about a third of the population is black and yet deaths of black residents have outnumbered those of whites. Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said she was “dumbfounded” by the move: “I am extremely concerned, especially for the African-American community where there’s a barber shop and a hair salon on every single corner.”

The mayor retweeted an anonymous text addressing her with a racial slur and saying “just shut up and RE-OPEN ATLANTA!”  

An hour’s drive north in Bartow County, where Cartersville is the county seat, 87% of the residents are white and more than three-quarters of voters supported Kemp in 2018. His move this week was met with a largely favorable, if measured, response.

Elaine King, working the register at DiPrima’s Shoes, said she doubts the governor’s decision will hurt him politically. ”You can’t just stop the world,” she said. “You did for a while, but it can’t go on.”

County administrator Peter Olson said Bartow County is ready to get back to business.

At Quick Fix Repairs & Such, tucked into a plaza along Cartersville's main highway, owner Susan Gilmore supports Kemp’s decision and is skeptical of the government's $600-a-week unemployment benefit, which she thinks discourages work. She said she’s seen customers begin to show up again, after disappearing entirely in March. 


Mixed with the eagerness to reopen is trepidation. “There have been a lot of businesses that people have built over the years that have been brought to their knees,” said Cartersville Mayor Matt Santini. “I support the governor in trying to do what he thinks is best for Georgia. But I was surprised.”

He hopes churches — which Kemp is allowing to reopen if they follow safety precautions — keep their doors shut. There’s a reason for that. The county’s deadly outbreak of Covid-19 began at Cartersville’s Church at Liberty Square, where parishioners hold their hands up in praise and pastors speak in tongues and perform faith healing.

Sometime around the beginning of March, it became a coronavirus super spreader.

Olson and Alex Wright, the chief of county emergency services, say the virus circulated at a retirement party for the church music director, at choir practice, then at services, infecting parishioners up to two counties away. After the church’s role became clear in mid-March, congregants held a videotaped prayer vigil outside the local hospital. Staff of the Cartersville Medical Center lined up across the hospital’s roof to participate, hands in the air.

The virus spread through the community and eventually — as in other parts of the country — settled disastrously into nursing homes.

The case numbers started at seven on March 14. By the 20th, they hit 54. The county ordered restaurants and personal-care businesses shut down the following Friday. It worked, said Olson. The numbers rose to 58 on March 30, then began to fall, hitting 34 new cases in the week leading up to Kemp’s lifting of restriction. As of April 23, the county reported 264 cases and 27 deaths — a 10% mortality rate. At least 17 of the deaths were in nursing homes.

At King Pizzeria, where owner Kishu Mahtani juggled a lively walk-up business on Wednesday, two customers argued about the merits of reopening so soon after being hard hit by a lethal disease it had finally gotten under control.

One — there to order King’s double meat “heart-stopper” pie — supported Kemp, on the grounds that everyone should have a choice on whether to venture outside. The other argued that choice may put another person at risk.

Mahtani himself said people should have been able to “decide on their own if they wanted to take a chance,” and he joked that his heart-stopper is more likely to kill people than the virus.

Scott’s Walk-Up Bar-B-Q in downtown Cartersville is planning to reopen its 130-person dining room to about 40 diners Monday, as long as owner Craig Guyton thinks he can do it safely: “The last thing on earth I want to do is have one of my customers infect several people while they are eating here.”

Guyton says some diners are itching to come back.  One group, three couples in their 70s who had come to Scott’s every Wednesday, insisted on continuing their ritual. As the shutdown continued, they brought card tables and lawn chairs to his parking lot to eat their barbeque. Guyton laughed when asked if they stayed six feet apart: “I don’t want to get anybody in trouble. But, no. No, they did not.”

It remains to be seen exactly how many businesses now allowed to open will do so. Cartersville’s 12-screen AMC movie theater won’t: AMC Entertainment Holdings Inc., the largest U.S. chain, said this month that it’s targeting a wide reopening of its facilities in July.

At least four downtown Cartersville restaurants have already announced they will not reopen Monday, but not necessarily because of virus fears. Some need time to either bring back staff who were let go during the shutdown or hire and train new workers, said Guyton, who didn’t lay off any of his employees.

“It’s more market related,” Guyton said. “One of the things that Governor Kemp did is that he surprised everyone. Nobody expected him to say ‘Okay, let’s go.’ I was shocked. There were a lot of restaurants that were caught flat-footed.”


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