Why Georgia’s Governor Reopening the Service Economy? Ending unemployment benefits may have something to do with it.

via citylab

During the last week in March, Georgia processed more claims for unemployment insurance than the state did in all of 2019. In the span of seven days, workers made 390,000 new jobless claims, and the Georgia Department of Labor says the state issued nearly $42 million in unemployment benefits.

Then the full force of coronavirus closures struck state coffers. Over the course of about three weeks in April, Georgia has paid out some $600 million in unemployment claims, according to the Augusta Metro Chamber of Commerce. The state has processed more than 1 million jobless claims, blowing past records set during the Great Recession. It’s unclear how much money is still left in the state’s unemployment trust fund, which started the year at $2.6 billion — but without intervention, it may last only a matter of weeks.

A course correction may be coming. On April 20, Georgia Governor Brian Kemp announced that he would lift the state’s stay-at-home order for certain conspicuously non-essential businesses, including health clubs, hair salons, tattoo parlors and bowling alleys. Those businesses could re-open this Friday. Restaurants, meanwhile, can resume dine-in service as of Monday. The establishments that the governor just whistled open account for a huge share of those new jobless claims. Workers in restaurants and retail alone make up about a third of the state’s workforce.

Critics have hammered Kemp’s decision to reopen the economy as “reckless” and “insane.” This weekend, business owners across the state are allowed to ask their employees to clock back in, even though Georgia has not yet met the so-called gating criteria outlined by the federal government for ending social-distancing protocols. It’s not just a question of red tape: Testing has revealed more than 21,000 confirmed Covid-19 cases in Georgia, a number that continues to climb. More than 1,000 new cases were identified since April 21. The state’s coronavirus case count is the 10th worse nationwide; its death toll stood at 872 on April 23.

In Albany — a small town in the poorer and predominantly black stretch of rural Southwest Georgia that has lost 110 residents to the pandemic — local leaders spoke with dismay about Kemp’s decision to reopen jobs. Dougherty County Commission Chairman Chris Cohilas said that people should continue to shelter in place and practice social distancing. “Just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should do something,” Cohilas said.

Albany Mayor Bo Dorough agreed. “We are not ready for this,” he told NBC News this week. He said that Kemp’s decision to prevent local leaders from issuing more restrictive orders where necessary was misguided and irresponsible. Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms of Atlanta, the state’s biggest city, has also shared her concerns about the reopening order.

Public misgivings about Georgia’s scheme even reached the White House. In a surreal spectacle on Wednesday, President Donald Trump casually threw Kemp under the bus for acting with the haste demanded by the president. Nevertheless, two other GOP-led states, South Carolina and Tennessee, plan to follow suit.