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Visitors flocked to Utah’s Sand Hollow State Park and barber shops in Georgia after some states reopened some public places.

USA TODAY

We still don’t know who is spreading this awful virus, how many cases we really have, or what will happen as the state reopens in earnest. It’s scary.

You’re laughing at Georgia, again, aren’t you? It happens a lot. I know my uncle in Colorado got a kick out of Gov. Brian Kemp’s announcement last week that the state would start to reopen businesses previously closed by COVID-19, starting with bowling alleys, gyms, tattoo parlors and salons. Give me a foot massage or give me death? Welcome to Georgia!

“Dying for cute toes” would be a hilarious state motto if the situation here weren’t also so serious. With 1,000 deaths and more than 24,000 confirmed cases as of Monday night , Georgia has not been the hardest hit state in the country. But we haven’t avoided our own tragedies, either. Dougherty County in rural Georgia has been one of the country’s most severe hot spots, with hospitals overwhelmed after two family funerals spawned hundreds more cases and deaths there.  

And those are just the cases we know about. A shortage of supplies in Georgia restricted testing until the week of April 13 to just front-line workers, the medically fragile, and people in long-term care facilities. Georgia still ranks 36th in the nation for the number of tests completed per capita, leaving leaders and the public with no way to know whether the spread of the virus is getting better, worse, or staying the same since the governor issued the state’s shelter-in-place order in March.  

Conflicting guidance from leaders 

That’s why it came as a shock to many, including mayors of Georgia’s largest cities, when Kemp said the state would begin a phased reopening, starting last Friday with the businesses he closed in March, including (yes) barbers, gyms and nail salons, with restaurants allowed to open for dine-in service starting Monday of this week.  

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That decision drew rebukes across the political spectrum — from President Donald Trump, who made it clear that he was unhappy with Kemp, to Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, who urged Atlantans to continue to stay home despite what the governor said.  

The immediate result of having no consensus of leadership has been a dangerous lack of consensus on what to do next. Is it safe to run on a treadmill, but not shop for groceries? Should you get a haircut, but not a car wash? How can anyone get “socially distant” hair color?  Nobody really knows.  

That confusion also meant that on Friday, after the state reopened, many businesses stayed closed, especially in Atlanta. At Midtown Bowl, one of the city’s iconic institutions, the doors were locked behind a sign that read, “We’ll roll again soon.” Of the 10 nail salons I drove past, one was open for walk-ins, one by appointment only, and the rest still dark with signs they’d be back when it was safe for customers. Typically bustling business districts were so quiet that pedestrians stood in the drive-thru lines at Starbucks to get their morning coffee.  

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But just an hour north it was a different story. The parking lot at the Tractor Supply outside of Rome, Georgia, was filled with pick-up trucks and bustling with shoppers. At the Tropical Nail Salon, customers sat shoulder-to-shoulder on a couch waiting for the next available manicure or pedicure. Three others sat so close under a nail dryer that they could share a magazine. The women weren’t six inches apart, let alone the six feet that Kemp prescribed in his list of safety measures businesses should observe to keep customers and employees safe.  

All of the employees wore masks, as the governor’s executive order prescribed, but none of the customers did. With dozens of suggested and required criteria for reopening, but no real enforcement mechanism to make sure it’s happening, what’s “safe” in Georgia is being left up to shop owners who financially have to get back to work, but have no medical training on how to do it in a pandemic.

We still don’t have enough information

At the beginning of April, after Kemp announced the state’s shelter in place order, I pitched a column titled, “America, we’re not as dumb as we look.” The governor was being ridiculed for saying he had only just learned that coronavirus could spread before its symptoms appeared. In fairness to Kemp, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had released a new report the day before that clearly confirmed asymptomatic spread, which many had long suspected.  

The data that Kemp relied on then is still true today. We still don’t know who is spreading this terrible virus, how many cases we really have, nor what will happen as the state reopens in earnest. I hate to say it, Georgia, but on this one, we’re exactly as dumb as we look. 

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I don’t think the governor is dumb. Far from it. To see him working up close is to see a man who clearly cares about this state and its people. But that’s why this decision, at this time, makes so little sense.  

It’s possible that history will show Kemp is making the right decision. Being the first state to reopen could save businesses from closing and keep people in jobs who desperately need them. But it’s also possible that reopening the state will spark a new spread, that people who don’t know they carry the virus will unknowingly spread it to others, and that people could die as a result.  

We just don’t know, and that’s a scary place to be living, working, and raising a family.  I’ve got my box of at-home hair color ready to go until we know for sure. 

Patricia Murphy is a political columnist and correspondent based in Atlanta. Follow her on Twitter: @1PatriciaMurphy

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