By Rich McKay
ATLANTA (Reuters) – Georgia, at the vanguard of states testing the safety of reopening the U.S. economy in the midst of the coronavirus outbreak, permitted restaurant dining for the first time in a month on Monday while governors in regions with fewer cases also eased restrictions.
Eager to revive battered commerce despite warnings from medical experts that public health safeguards such as large-scale virus screenings remain largely absent, a handful of states from Montana to Mississippi were also set to reopen some workplaces that were shuttered for being non-essential.
Alaska, Oklahoma and South Carolina, along with Georgia, previously took such steps after weeks of mandatory lockdowns that have thrown millions of Americans out of work and led to forecasts that an economic shock of historic proportions is at hand.
President Donald Trump and some local officials have criticized Georgia Governor Brian Kemp for forging ahead to add restaurants and movie theaters to the list of businesses – hair and nail salons, barber shops and tattoo parlors – that he allowed to reopen last week, albeit with social-distancing restrictions still in force.
No companies are required to reopen, and it remained to be seen how many merchants would choose to return to business and how many customers would show up if they do.
Some owners and managers of eateries in Atlanta, the state’s largest city and capital, were less than enthusiastic.
“It’s not safe,” said Brian Maloof, owner of Manuel’s Tavern, a fixture for more than 60 years. “I don’t know when we’ll open, but I’m afraid it won’t be anytime soon.”
But Moe’s Original BBQ by the Georgia Tech campus hung an open sign on the door for the first time in a month.
“I don’t know if this is a big step to normal, but at least it’s something,” owner Brian Mancuso said of his trickle of lunch customers.
In the hardest-hit states of New York and New Jersey, part of a metropolitan region of about 32 million people, governors signaled that even limited restarting of business activities was at least weeks away.
Even though Georgia has allowed movie theaters to reopen, three major movie theater chains – AMC, Regal and Cinemark – as well as most if not all smaller exhibitors have no plans to reopen anywhere for the time being.
“We don’t feel it’s safe enough for our staff or our customers to just open up for regular business, even with sort of preventive measures,” said Christopher Escobar, owner of the Plaza Theater, billed as Atlanta’s only independent cinema.
Drive-in theaters may be an exception. The Swan Drive-In Theatre in Blue Ridge, north of Atlanta, planned to open this weekend, with new rules for parking and concessions to assure social distancing.
Business shutdowns to stem the spread of coronavirus have led to a record 26.5 million Americans filing for unemployment benefits since mid-March – nearly one in six workers – with the Trump administration projecting that the jobless rate will likely hit 16% or more in April.
Almost a third of all U.S. adults have already reported seeing their jobs or finances diminished by the pandemic, according to a Gallup survey released on Monday.
States moving ahead with reopenings, by and large, are concentrated in the South, the Midwest and the mountain West, where outbreaks have generally been less severe.
The more densely populated states of New York and New Jersey, by contrast, account for nearly 30,000 COVID-19 fatalities, or more than half the U.S. total of more than 56,000 as the country’s coronavirus cases approached 1 million on Monday.
Georgia ranks 11th among the 50 U.S. states in number of deaths, with 994.
Public health authorities warn that increasing human interactions and economic activity now, without the means to do so safely, may spark a fresh surge of infections just as social distancing measures appeared to be bringing cases under control.
Federal guidelines call for a state to register 14 days of declining case numbers before moving ahead with phased-in reopenings. The guidelines also call for greatly expanded testing to systematically screen for infected people who may be contagious, and to trace their contacts with others they might have exposed.
In Florida, Governor Ron DeSantis said the White House advised him on Monday that his state satisfied reopening criteria, but that heavily impacted areas, including greater Miami, may be different.
In the Midwest, Ohio Governor Mike DeWine on Monday outlined “first steps” for easing restrictions, with elective surgeries being permitted to resume this week before moves to restart the state’s manufacturing and retail sectors.
Ohio’s blueprint contrasted with the more cautious approach of Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, who said she would not be held to “artificial timelines.”
The divergent progressions could complicate matters for automakers and others with interdependent industrial operations in the region.
Under a plan outlined on Monday by Texas Governor Greg Abbott, dental and medical practices and churches will be allowed to reopen on May 1, but gyms, barbershops, nail salons and bars will remain shuttered for now.
Officials in New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts have for weeks insisted more testing and contact tracing be in place before they relax stay-at-home orders and other restrictions.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said on Monday that any easing must be carefully monitored and fit into a multi-state plan. Cuomo said he would likely extend stay-home orders in much of the state on May 15 but may reopen some businesses, including manufacturing and construction, in areas with fewer cases of the virus.
California Governor Gavin Newsom said social-distancing enforcement would be stepped up after crowds jammed beaches over the weekend.
Hours later, Governor Jay Inslee of Washington, whose state was hit by one of the earliest U.S. coronavirus outbreaks, said parks and other outdoor areas would reopen on May 5 for golf, hunting, fishing and other recreational activities.
GRAPHIC: Tracking the novel coronavirus in the U.S. – https://graphics.reuters.com/HEALTH-CORONAVIRUS-USA/0100B5K8423/index.html
(Reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta; Susan Heavey in Washington; additional reporting by Maria Caspani, Jessica Resnick-Ault, Barbara Goldberg, Nathan Layne, Andrew Hay, Lisa Shumaker, Sharon Bernstein, Ben Klayman, Michael Martina and Jill Serjeant; writing by Grant McCool and Steve Gorman; Editing by Bill Tarrant and Sonya Hepinstall)