Georgia on Friday became one of the first states to experiment with easing its stay-at-home restrictions and concerned mayors from across the state pointed to the rise in coronavirus cases in their cities – both urban and rural – as evidence it’s too soon to return to some semblance of normal.
Jittery Americans worried about the spread of the virus watched as Peach State Gov. Brian Kemp, a Republican, allowed hair and nail salons, barber shops, massage businesses and gyms to reopen. It marked the first major step back from a statewide stay-at-home order in the country as Kemp hoped to kick start his state after weeks of pandemic-induced economic pain.
But ripples of alarm were running through big and small towns alike in Georgia on Friday, as well as neighboring states, as the number of coronavirus deaths in the United States surpassed 51,000. The discontent and worry from mayors in urban and rural areas across the state of Georgia highlighted, on a state level, the dilemma facing the country as it looks toward getting back to business-as-usual – how to keep people safe with a patchwork system of stay-at-home orders in some places and grand reopenings in others.
“There is so much confusion,” Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, a Democrat, told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer Friday evening, noting that the state’s residents are struggling as they hear one message from the governor and another from public health experts. She bluntly swept aside the governor’s guidance to push her own message: “Stay home, nothing has changed.”
Bottoms predicted that positive Covid-19 test numbers will rise within the next few weeks, possibly erasing the gains made by keeping people at home for the last three weeks.
The Atlanta mayor noted that as of noon Friday, Georgia’s death rate was up 37% from the same day a week ago.
“We are not on the other side of this,” Bottoms said. “It’s like we are in a tunnel, and rather than walking straight toward the light, we’re spinning around in circles. We’ll never get to the light if we don’t continue to do what we’ve done thus far, and that’s to separate ourselves socially from one another.”
While the epicenter of the virus was previously in states along the coasts like New York, New Jersey and Washington state, it is increasingly spreading into rural areas and to smaller cities where hospital resources were already stretched thin, presenting unique and complex challenges for providers and local leaders there.
Mayors in rural and populous areas caught off guard – and urge caution
Kemp’s decision to allow some businesses to open Friday surprised some local leaders in hard-hit rural areas around Albany, Georgia, a small city with an extraordinarily high number of cases per capita.
The city’s mayor, Bo Dorough, said he still hopes that Georgia’s governor will carve out an exception for hotspots like Albany and the surrounding rural counties to allow them to maintain more stringent measures.
In Dougherty County, which has a population of about 88,000 and where Albany is located, the Georgia Department of Health was reporting 1,465 confirmed cases of Covid-19 and 108 deaths as of Friday evening. Earlier this month, Dorough noted, Dougherty County had the unwelcome distinction of having one of the highest number of per capita cases in the country.
Coronavirus cases spread rapidly in the counties around Albany after local residents gathered for two funerals in late February and early March. A 67-year-old man who traveled to one of the funerals tested positive for the coronavirus, setting off what residents have described to CNN as a “domino effect.”
Though hospitalization rates have dropped in his area, Dorough is now concerned about the spread of the virus both in the rural areas of Georgia near Albany and the larger cities like Savannah, though he said he understands the governor’s position that he wanted to have “uniform order in place throughout the state.”
In a telephone interview Friday night, Dorough said many businesses in Albany simply did not open Friday because of fears that cases could spike again and the difficulty of meeting all the physical distancing requirements. He said he expects that to be the case Monday when some restaurants will be permitted to open.
“The understandable concern is, ‘Heck, even if I open up I’m not going to have people eating inside the restaurant because folks are worried about getting sick and dying,’” Dorough said. “If you see the number of confirmed cases and this death toll that mounts every day, it’s not a situation where it’s like, ‘Well, it’s not going to happen to me.’ Because by this point in time, everybody knows somebody who’s been affected by it.”
On the other side of the state in Savannah, Mayor Van Johnson told CNN’s “Daily DC” podcast he had no communication with Kemp before the Republican decided to announce the plans to reopen.
Johnson said Kemp has kept local officials like himself from keeping their own stay-at-home orders in place, and said he just wants to follow President Donald Trump’s guidelines for reopening.
“The phased-in operations were clear to us, that you have at least 14 days of flat hospitalizations or infection – we’re still going up – and that there is mass testing, which we do not have,” Johnson said. “We’ve expanded it, but we’re certainly not where we’re testing most people in Georgia. That tells me that we are not ready to open.”
He added, “There are cities that are certainly more apt and more prepared to reopen than Savannah, and states that are more prepared to open than Georgia, based on the science. Today, we are not prepared for that.”
Coronavirus moves out of the cities and starts to hit rural meat processing plants
Public health officials are increasingly concerned about the growth of Covid-19 cases in southern and Midwestern towns where hotspots have developed at meat and poultry processing plants.
Several earlier Covid-19 cases near Albany were tied to the Tyson Foods poultry plant in nearby Camilla, Georgia, in neighboring Mitchell County, which was the focus of a New York Times piece earlier this month. The Southeast Council of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which represents workers at the plant, confirmed the Covid-19 related deaths of three workers at that facility last week.
How Governors Have Responded to the Coronavirus Crisis
And the worry is not limited to just Georgia. While tracking the impact of Covid-19 on meatpacking workers, the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting put out a report this week stating that the extent of the coronavirus outbreaks in plants across the country may be much more pervasive than what has been reported so far.
Assembling data from company press releases, states, county health departments and news reports, the center said this week that as of Friday, some 3,773 positive coronavirus cases have been tied to 66 meatpacking plants in 24 states.
The flareups of cases related to meat and poultry processing plants have occurred in small towns in a broad array states including Georgia, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri and Wisconsin. The virus has also hit smaller cities like Sioux Falls, South Dakota – where an outbreak at one Smithfield Foods pork processing plant has now been tied to a stunning 783 employee cases, with an additional 206 cases linked to employee contact.
On Wednesday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention put out 100 recommendations for the Smithfield plant in Sioux Falls, where the agency noted that there are even basic communication barriers given that workers speak 40 different languages. Employees who contracted the virus were initially given information packets only in English before they were sent home, the CDC report said. The company announced the plant would close indefinitely on April 12.
With employees working shoulder-to-shoulder in tight spaces, the CDC’s report cited concerns about the limited number of hand-washing stations at the Sioux Falls plant and noted the company’s reported plans to increase the number of hand sanitizing dispensers, to institute a universal face mask requirement and to provide face shields to workers.
South Dakota Republican Gov. Kristi Noem, during a news conference on Thursday, said state health and agriculture departments have been working closely with Smithfield “to make sure that we’re able to put in some of those recommendations and get it up and running as soon as possible.”
“I don’t see any reason for there to be long delays,” Noem said of the plant Thursday. “We’re hoping to partner with them to open it as soon as possible.”
Another Smithfield Foods plant was forced to close in St. Charles, Illinois, on Friday. The Kane County Health Department announced Saturday in a press release that they ordered the plant to shut its doors on Friday “due to concerns about Covid-19.”
The department did not indicate how many cases may be tied to the plant or how many workers have been tested. Smithfield did not immediately respond to CNN’s request for comment.
This story has been updated with additional developments Saturday.
CNN’s Artemis Moshtaghia contributed to this report.