African Americans in Georgia wary of returning to work as community struggles with impact of COVID-19

Some African Americans in Georgia are hesitant to return to work despite a reopening of some non-essential businesses last week as they wrestle with the disproportionate toll COVID-19 has had on the black population in that state and others.

African Americans disproportionately affected by COVID-19, studies suggest

Signs urging physical distancing at the Waffle House in Madison, Ga, one of a few restaurant chains to reopen for in-house dining after Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp lifted the COVID-19 shutdown of non-essential businesses last week. (Maranie Staab/Reuters)

"Why is it the barber shops? The bowling alleys? It's a bit strange."

Kebbi Williams has some pointed questions for Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp over the reopening of non-essential businesses in the state last week.

Georgia was one of the last states to impose a stay-at-home order and shut down non-essential businesses in early April to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus and is among the first to start lifting these restrictions.

As of Friday night, the state had around 27,494 confirmed cases of COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus, and 1,167 deaths. The seven-day rolling average of newly confirmed cases has been declining since April 20, according to the state department of health.

"I wish that the governor would just chill out, and let this thing fly, and then everybody can go back to work, not just the front line, who are mostly black in this situation," he said.

Williams is a Grammy Award winning saxophone player who runs a music mentoring program for inner city kids in Atlanta, which has been put on hold because of COVID-19.

Grammy Award winning saxophone player Kebbi Williams has put his music mentoring program for inner city kids hold because of COVID-19. (Katie Simpson/CBC)

He says he understands people need to work to make ends meet but worries those same people are being put in an unfair position to have to choose between exposure to the novel coronavirus and feeding their families.

In the United States, a higher proportion of African Americans and members of the Latinx community (a non-gendered term used to describe people of Latin American origin) work in the service industry than other population groups, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labour Statistics.

In a demographic breakdown of 2018 labour force statistics, it found that 24 per cent of employed African Americans and 24 per cent of Latinx workers worked in service occupations compared to 17 per cent of Asian workers, and 16 per cent of employees who identified as white.

WATCH | As Georgia begins to lift restrictions, some residents worry it's too soon to return to work:

COVID-19 puts spotlight on health-care inequality in Georgia

2 years ago
Duration 2:00
Georgia’s black population has been the hardest hit by the COVID-19 outbreak and is putting a spotlight on health care and economic inequality in the state.

African Americans disproportionately affected by pandemic

Kemp allowed some sectors of the economy to start reopening last Friday and lifted the shelter-in-place order May 1 for all but the elderly and "medically fragile."

Many of the businesses that reopened, including nail and hair salons, restaurant dining rooms, move theatres, gyms and bowling alleys, are service based.

"We have a large amount of blacks that have the virus — why, why put us on the front line and just open up?" Williams wonders.

"It doesn't seem like he's thinking about us."

Willie Edwards says he reopened his barber shop in Atlanta because otherwise, he wouldn't be able to pay his rent. (Katie Simpson/CBC)

Georgia is the latest state for which data has come out showing African Americans are being hit disproportionately hard by the novel coronavirus.

A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study released this past Wednesday took a look at eight hospitals in the state. Of the 300 patients who needed to be hospitalized for COVID-19, more than 80 per cent were African American.

African Americans make up approximately 30 per cent of Georgia's population.

People exercise at Gold's Gym in Augusta, Ga. Gyms were among the non-essential businesses allowed to reopen last week. (Maranie Staab/Reuters)

Small county hit hard

In Dougherty County, a rural community of about 90,000 people in the southwestern part of the state, of the more than 120 COVID-19 deaths, 76 per cent are African Americans, according to the country coroner, Michael Fowler.

"I know these individuals in our community, and that's why I'm fighting for our community. I'm tired of going and zipping up a body bag with somebody that I know," said Fowler.

Dougherty County has the highest number of deaths in the state despite its small size and the fourth-highest number of cases per 100,000 people.

Michael Fowler, the coroner for Dougherty County, prepares to enter his small, rural morgue. The community has experienced the highest number of deaths in the state of Georgia. (Yaz Johnson)

Fowler does not criticize Kemp or question his decision. But with his small morgue already full, he's urging people in his community to stay home.

"Money's not that important, you can replace the house you lose, the car you lose, your job, but you can't replace life. Life is too precious," he said.

Governor Kemp stood by his decision during a news conference in Atlanta on Monday, citing historic unemployment numbers in the wake of the pandemic.

"I simply gave people the opportunity to reopen who literally were on the verge of losing everything they've got," he said. "These are tough decisions. It wasn't a mandate. They don't have to do it, but they have the opportunity."

WATCH | Salons, restaurants and tatoo parlors slowly resume business across Georgia:

Customers cautious as Georgia reopens more businesses

2 years ago
Duration 1:59
Georgia allowed more non-essential businesses to open this week, easing weeks of COVID-19 restrictions, but many customers still chose to stay away.

Access to health care a factor

Cher Salmon, who owns a nail salon in Atlanta, says she's thankful for the opportunity but would rather not have returned to work.

"It really wasn't a tough decision, because as I said, I have no choice. I have to get to work. If there was a choice, I would be closed still," she said.

Salmon is eight months pregnant. She applied for loans and grants in the hopes of being able to stay closed but did not qualify.

The pandemic is also bringing attention to the longstanding challenges African Americans have experienced in accessing health care in the U.S., according to Mack Willis Senior, an executive at the Atlanta chapter of the NAACP.

"It's like someone walking over to the wall and flipping a light on and exposing all of these health care disparities," he said.

Willis is currently recovering from COVID-19, as are his two grown sons.

Mack Willis Sr., pictured third from left with his family, is recovering from COVID-19 and says the pandemic has shed light on the racial disparities in access to health care. (Mack Willis Sr.)

He wants this crisis to launch a conversation about how these disparities can be fixed.

"This is a picture that needs to be repainted, because there's something not right about this."

According to a December 2019 report by the Century Foundation, which describes itself as a non-partisan think tank, the "American health care system is beset with inequalities that have a disproportionate impact on people of colour and other marginalized groups."

While gains have been made since the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, the report says, "disparities still exist across health conditions when comparing African Americans and whites, including maternal mortality, infant mortality, heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and other health issues."

Only a 'sliver of information' so far

With COVID-19, "it seems there is a racial divide," says Mohammed Ali, a family physician and associate professor with the faculty of global health at Emory University.

But he says more data needs to be collected before making definitive conclusions.

"It's not clear what the drivers are that are going on, all we have is this sliver of information that's showing major gaps," Ali said.

"Traditionally, the African American and Hispanic experience in health care both in accessing it, in having insurance and … also how the health care provider treats you, those have always been quite different."

A COVID-19 testing site in Conyers, Ga. There are indications the coronavirus has disproportionately affected Black Americans, but there is still a lot to learn about why. (Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/The Associated Press)

There is another factor at play here, Ali says.

"We think there's an association with obesity and there's a high presence of obesity and diabetes in the African American population."

From his perspective, the decision to reopen non-essential businesses was premature.

He fears already hard-hit communities might suffer further if physical distancing rules aren't followed precisely.

"I worry about those communities having big flares, so we're probably going to see wildfires in counties and zip codes that just can't afford it."


Katie Simpson is a foreign correspondent with CBC News based in Washington. Prior to joining the team in D.C. she spent six years covering Parliament Hill in Ottawa and nearly a decade covering local and provincial issues in Toronto.

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?