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Savannah Mayor: 'Science Does Not Support' Georgia Lockdown Lift

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to begin this hour in the state of Georgia, where Governor Brian Kemp lifted a month-long shutdown intended to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Certain businesses were allowed to reopen starting yesterday, like gyms and hair salons, if they follow certain procedures. And while it was certainly welcomed by some, it's been the subject of intense disagreement between the governor and other officials, including President Trump.

We're going to spend a good part of this hour hearing from different voices in the state. We'll hear from business owners who are trying to decide what to do and from a law professor about the possible legal consequences of this decision. But first, we want to hear from a mayor who is also trying to figure out how best to balance safety with the economy, so we've called Van Johnson. He's mayor of Savannah, Ga.

Mr. Mayor, welcome. Thank you so much for talking to us.

VAN JOHNSON: Hello, Michel. Thank you so much for the opportunity.

MARTIN: Well, Mr. Mayor, you've made it clear that this decision to reopen is premature, that you disagree with it. I mean, earlier this week, you tweeted in part, quote, "there is no flattening of the curve in Georgia. Therefore, allowing businesses to open at this time is absolutely premature and not supported by science or data."

It's my understanding that there have been more than 22,000 confirmed cases in Georgia so far, 900 deaths so far. And there's no clear pattern showing that the caseload is diminishing, though there's been some variability day by day. But there's no clear pattern showing that the spread of the virus has abated. So, you know, we're one day into the governor's decision to reopen certain businesses. Do you still feel that way?

JOHNSON: I do still feel that way. We have chosen here in Savannah to keep the faith but follow the science, and the science does not support the governor's decision. We have not had a flattening over four days, much less 14 days. Here in Chatham County, where Savannah is a county seat, we have over 200 infections and six deaths. This number has continued to rise over the last couple of days, over the last couple of weeks. It is clear that there are other candidates in states that are probably better positioned to open. Georgia is not one of them.

MARTIN: So what is happening in Savannah now? Are businesses opening? And just more broadly, if you can say, like, what's the mood there?

JOHNSON: The mood is still very cautious. We've heard from many of our businesses, many of our restaurants that are remaining closed. There are businesses that have opened. They feel the need to open. They're very anxious to open. And I've told them that if they're going to do it, then do it - make sure you have a plan, and make sure you can do it safely. I do not know how you can cut hair or do hair or do nails or do a massage or give a tattoo from a 6-foot distance. To me, it just did not make sense how you could do that safely.

So it's very concerning to us that we can open these types of businesses, but we can't open the Department of Labor so that our folks can get their unemployment checks they've been waiting on - that we can open these businesses, but yet we can't open the Department of Family and Children's Services so that families can get to the aid that they need. We can open these businesses, but yet the Georgia legislature's not coming back into session until June 11.

MARTIN: In announcing his decision to allow certain businesses to reopen, the governor cited the need to balance, you know, safety with economic considerations. We know that Georgia, like, frankly, most states, has been hit hard by the unemployment crisis that's been brought on by the pandemic. Savannah has a large port that's important for trade. And obviously, one doesn't want to be insensitive, but is there any economic argument that you've heard that's compelling, especially given how important Savannah is to the economy of the whole state?

JOHNSON: No, I have not. As a matter of fact, the ports have not closed since this begun. We are still the second-busiest port on the East Coast. That has not stopped, so it's not a commerce argument. I'm not sure how barbers and beauty salon techs and nail techs contribute greatly to the economy, so to speak.

I think we have to resolve the unemployment insurance issues yet here in our community. We're requiring restaurant workers to come back to work so that they can't file unemployment anymore. I mean, I think the issue is that our unemployment coffers are probably near-depleted, and we have to have a way to get these people off of these unemployment rolls.

MARTIN: So you really think that the issue here is - if we could just be blunt about it, you feel the issue here is that the governor doesn't want to continue to pay unemployment benefits. That's really the issue in your opinion.

JOHNSON: I think that the governor has other interests that does not necessarily compute with the interests of keeping people safe primarily.

MARTIN: This reopening has happened earlier than it has in other parts of the country. Even though you don't agree with the decision, is there any advice you might have for other people who will find themselves in the same situation, other leaders, in the days to come? Other governors are certainly considering this move. Do you have any insights or advice that you would share with your peers across the country?

JOHNSON: Sure. My only advice would be to have a plan. If you're going to open, plan for a gradual reopening. Make sure that people are armed with information in order to keep safe. And again, always do what's in the best interests of people. If you don't have strong people, strong, healthy people, you cannot have strong, healthy businesses. And businesses can be open all day long, but if people do not feel safe, they are not going to come.

MARTIN: That was Van Johnson. He's mayor of Savannah, Ga.

Mayor Johnson, thanks so much for talking with us.

JOHNSON: Thank you. And we welcome you to come back to Savannah when it's safe. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Hey, thanks for reading.
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