With re-opening plans, red-state governors place a dangerous bet

Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once described states as "laboratories of democracy." That label will soon be considered in an unsettling new light.
Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp speaks during a news conference at Liberty Plaza across the street from the Georgia state Capitol building in downtown Atlanta on April 1, 2020. Kemp says he will issue a statewide shelter-in-place order to prevent spread of the coronavirus and shut down public schools for the rest of the year.
Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp speaks during a news conference at Liberty Plaza across the street from the Georgia state Capitol building in downtown Atlanta on April 1, 2020. Kemp says he will issue a statewide shelter-in-place order to prevent spread of the coronavirus and shut down public schools for the rest of the year.Alyssa Pointer / Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP

It was just three weeks ago when Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R), slower than most to impose restrictions to slow the spread of the coronavirus, announced a stay-at-home order. As part of the announcement the Republican governor explained that he'd only recently learned that people without symptoms can spread the virus, and that realization was "a game changer" for him and his team.

It was a strange thing to hear Kemp admit out loud. After all, one of the first pieces of information that most Americans learned about the crisis was an overview on asymptomatic transmissions.

Nevertheless, Kemp is now back in the news for related and unfortunate reasons. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported:

Gov. Brian Kemp took the first step Monday to reopen a Georgia economy battered by social restrictions to contain the coronavirus, even as public health experts warned he was all but inviting a new wave of infections.... Kemp said his decision to allow certain businesses -- gyms, barber shops, tattoo parlors and bowling alleys, among others -- to open their doors on Friday is a "measured" approach to balancing economic and public health concerns.

It's worth noting for context that with nearly 19,000 confirmed cases, Georgia has one of the southeast's highest coronavirus tallies, including more than 700 fatalities. Numbers like these suggest Kemp should exercise great caution before prematurely re-opening businesses.

Let's also not forget that it was just last week when Donald Trump announced new White House guidelines, including benchmarks states should expect to reach before launching re-opening initiatives. Georgia, at least as of yesterday, has not yet cleared those federal benchmarks.

The GOP governor, however, appears eager to move forward anyway. As NBC News reported, Kemp is not alone:

South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster said Monday that beaches and retail stores can reopen Tuesday. Businesses including sporting good shops and florists will have to observe social distancing guidelines that limit how many customers can shop at once, he said. Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee said he won't extend the state's stay-at-home order beyond April 30, while state parks can reopen Friday. Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts said elective surgery will resume May 4. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott made a similar announcement Friday.

In 1932, then-Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis described states as "laboratories of democracy." Evidently, that label will soon be considered in an unsettling new light.

There are a few relevant angles to keep in mind as these new policies unfold. For example, in Georgia, Kemp stressed yesterday that re-opened businesses will, among other things, have to follow social-distancing guidelines and screen workers for fever and respiratory illnesses. But public-health experts have repeatedly pointed to key pillars to a safe re-opening strategy -- widespread testing, contact tracing, isolation centers, et al. -- and those measures are not yet in place in Georgia or any other state.

What's more, governors may be opening the door to something resembling normalcy, but it's not yet clear how many people will be eager to walk through it. Kemp plans to re-open movie theaters next week, but Variety reported that most of the nation's leading theater chains aren't anywhere close to being ready to re-open their doors -- and given liability concerns, they're not even inclined to try.

I imagine there are some, especially on the right, who are looking abroad and noticing that countries like South Korea and Germany are making significant strides in re-opening their societies. "If they can do it," some Americans might ask, "why can't we?"

The answer is, countries like South Korea and Germany have been vastly more successful than we have in responding to the crisis and have an infrastructure in place that leaves them prepared to prevent a second wave.

Reuters reported yesterday, for example, on a 58-year-old man living in one of South Korea's largest cities, who tested positive for the virus on Saturday. Almost immediately, officials determined where he'd been and whom he may have interacted with. The report added, "More than 1,000 people are now quarantined or being checked after coming in contact with that man and his daughter, who is a nurse and has also tested positive, city officials said."

Note, South Korea was able to do all of this within 48 hours. It's what an effective model looks like.

When the United States has a comparable model, these re-opening plans will appear far more credible.