April 24, 2020 / 1:26 PM / a month ago

Georgia forges ahead with reopening despite disapproval of Trump, pandemic experts

ATLANTA (Reuters) - Georgia pushed ahead with its plan to become the first U.S. state to allow an array of merchants to reopen on Friday following a month-long shutdown to stanch the coronavirus outbreak, even though both U.S. President Donald Trump and health experts voiced disapproval.

FILE PHOTO: Two men walk down a ramp to the parking lot for The Varsity restaurant days before the phased reopening of businesses and restaurants from coronavirus disease (COVID-19) restrictions in Atlanta, Georgia, U.S. April 22, 2020. Restaurants are among the businesses allowed to reopen to the public on Monday. REUTERS/Elijah Nouvelage

Gyms, hair salons, tattoo parlors and some other businesses have been given the green light to open their doors on Friday by Georgia Governor Brian Kemp, who disregarded warnings from public health experts that relaxing restrictions could lead to a surge in infections of the novel coronavirus and more deaths.

Trump and Vice President Mike Pence more than once told Kemp they approved of his plan to lift restrictions before Trump reversed that stance and told a news conference he disapproved, the Associated Press reported on Thursday, citing two administration officials.

Georgia has become a flashpoint in the debate over how quickly the country should get back to work. It is the first state to embark on a widespread reopening, although Florida opened some of its beaches last Friday, South Carolina began to ease restrictions on Monday and other states will relax guidelines next week.

The lockdowns have exacted a severe toll on the economy, with U.S. Labor Department data released on Thursday showing 26.5 million Americans had sought jobless benefits over the last five weeks.

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, who has repeatedly criticized Kemp’s push to reopen businesses, told the ABC News “Good Morning America” program that Georgia did not have the hospital capacity to handle the outbreak and warned of a second wave of cases.

“It’s necessary that we continue to distance ourselves,” she told ABC. “There are some who are willing to sacrifice lives for the sake of the economy and that’s unacceptable to me.”

The number of Americans known to be infected surpassed 875,000, with nearly 50,000 deaths from COVID-19, the highly contagious respiratory illness caused by the coronavirus, according to a Reuters tally.

According to a model maintained by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, which is used by the White House, hospitalizations in Georgia will peak next week and should not open until June 22.

Vice President Pence, who is leading the White House coronavirus task force, was due to hold a call with the country’s governors mid-day on Friday, the White House said.

Reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta, Nathan Layne in Wilton, Connecticut, Susan Heavey in Washington; Writing by Nathan Layne; Editing by Frank McGurty and Howard Goller

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