Georgia’s health infrastructure makes Kemp’s choice particularly dangerous. Girtz worries about the state’s hospitals. His county has two, but because of rural hospital closures, he says they’re expected to provide services not just for residents of Athens-Clarke County, but for the entire 17-county region around them, home to some 700,000 people. “A town like Elberton, 35 miles from us, or Commerce, just 25 miles up the road—those were places where, a generation ago, you could have a baby,” he said. “That’s no longer true, and it’s also true they don’t have the ICU beds there.”
Few people in Georgia are eager to be a case study in pandemic exceptionalism, but many won’t have a choice. Jillian Yeskel, the stylist in Roswell, whose Trump-supporting parents voted for Kemp, said she’d had conversations with them in the past week that she couldn’t have dreamed of a few months ago. “I’d assumed they’d support anything Kemp had to say,” she told me. “I talk to my mom every day, and we’re both just so upset with him.” There’s no polling available on how Georgians feel about social-distancing measures in general, but Yeskel’s experience with her parents follows national trends: A poll conducted in mid-April by Morning Consult and Politico found that even most respondents who said they view Trump very favorably or voted for Republicans in the 2018 midterm elections wanted to continue social distancing for as long as necessary.
All Georgians can do now is try to protect themselves as best they can. If social distancing decreases because lots of businesses reopen, another deluge of COVID-19 cases could be inevitable. Because of how infections tend to progress, it may be two or three weeks before hospitals see a new wave of people whose lungs look like they’re studded with ground glass in X-rays. By then, there’s no telling how many more people could be carrying the disease into nail salons or tattoo parlors, going about their daily lives because they were told they could do so safely.
In the meantime, local leaders whose municipal shutdowns have been overruled by state law are relying on other methods to keep their communities safe: disseminating information about testing, finding funds for food banks, creating grant programs to get a little bit of money to local businesses in need. For some, that includes duties both official and unofficial. On his walk home from city hall last week, Girtz said, he encountered his neighbors, a group of student roommates, enjoying the warm spring day. He’s lived in Athens a long time, and was worried that in a town known for revelry, a few people partying outside could turn into a lot of people partying outside. “They were drinking beer on the curb,” he recalled. “I just had to say, ‘Y’all, enjoy your time to the degree that you can, but at least go up on the damn porch.’”
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