As It Happens

Canadian chef refuses to reopen Georgia restaurants as state lifts COVID-19 restrictions

A renowned chef and a local mayor are among the people in Georgia speaking out against the governor's plans to relax some of the state's coronavirus restrictions and allow some businesses to reopen. 

Chef Hugh Acheson and Athens-Clarke County Mayor Kelly Girtz speak out against governor's plans

Canadian chef Hugh Acheson says he will not be opening his four restaurants in Georgia, U.S., despite the governor's plans to allow food establishments to reopen on Monday. (Amy Sussman/Jarden Home Brands/The Associated Press)

A renowned chef and a local mayor are among the people in Georgia speaking out against the governor's plans to relax the state's coronavirus restrictions and allow some establishments to reopen. 

Brian Kemp, the state's Republican governor, said Tuesday that businesses including gyms, hair salons, bowling alleys and tattoo parlours will be allowed to reopen their doors Friday. On Monday, theatres, private social clubs and dine-in restaurants will be permitted to do the same.

Canadian chef Hugh Acheson, a James Beard Foundation Award winner and owner of four restaurants in Georgia, says he won't be opening up shop.

"I think this is the first time ever in my lifetime I would say comfortably that this is not the time for fine dining," he told As It Happens host Carol Off. 

Kemp has defended the move, which he says is in line with U.S. President Donald Trump's Opening Up America Again plan.

Acheson, known for his TV roles on Top Chef and Iron Chef, says he talked to other restaurant owners in the state over the last 24 hours and did not "encounter one person" who was prepared to bring their staff back on Monday.

"As a business person, I think [reopening the state] is too soon. When we look at the identified businesses … those are a lot of really economical people in economic hardship, [but] I would much rather them remain on unemployment until the coast is really, decidedly clear," he said. 

Announcement 'very surprising': mayor 

Kelly Girtz, the mayor of Athens-Clarke County, says he was "very surprised" at the announcement and is concerned the move could reverse progress made in controlling the virus's spread. 

"All of the national and the global health experts have been indicating that there's some underlying conditions that have to be true in order for businesses to safely open back up," he told As It Happens.

"And we don't have [those] underlying set of conditions in place here."

Those include widespread testing "so we can find out who is potentially infectious," contact tracing to make sure the city can track down individuals who may have been in contact with the virus, and some form of treatment, Girtz said.

Acheson says he's concerned that forcing an early reopening of the food industry without these protections will negatively impact restaurant workers.

"A line cook gets paid $12 an hour. It's just not that much. They live on the outskirts of town with six other people as roommates [and] take public transit to work. There's a lot of points of contact there that worry me," he said. 

"We just haven't fixed these endemic issues yet to be able to give peace of mind to lower-income Americans that they're being prepared to work in a safe environment." 

Girtz says he's also surprised at the particular businesses that were being encouraged to reopen on Friday.

"Massage parlors, hair salons, nail salons — all the kinds of businesses where you come in very close physical proximity with other people," he said. 

Georgia governor Brian Kemp said that he is being informed by the 'Coronavirus Task Force and public health officials' on adhering plans to reopen the United State's economy. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

The Republican governors of South Carolina, Tennessee and Ohio also announced on Monday they will be taking similar measure in peeling back the curbs on commerce and social activity aimed at stopping the outbreak over the next two weeks. 

Georgia has been the hardest-hit of these states. As of Wednesday, it had reported 20,740 confirmed cases, 3,959 hospitalizations and 836 deaths linked to COVID-19, according to the Georgia Department of Public Health. 

Kemp said in a press release that he is being informed by the "Coronavirus Task Force and public health officials" on adhering to the Opening Up America Again plan unveiled by Trump on Thursday. 

The plan sets out three phases to "safely reopen and get folks back to work."

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To initiate phase one, a state must meet "a series of basic criteria," and "for weeks now" Georgia had taken "targeted action to prevent, detect, and address the spread," Kemp said. 

"Thanks to this methodical approach and the millions of Georgians who have worked diligently to slow the spread of coronavirus, we are on track to meet the gating criteria for Phase One."

'Clearly a political decision'

Girtz says the data actually contradicts Kemp's argument and this was "clearly a political decision" — but one he's powerless to stop .

"As a state, we are in a formal state of emergency and so the governor has emergency powers. He can certainly make these declarations. And unfortunately, local governments are pre-empted," he said. 

Kelly Girtz, mayor of Athens-Clarke County, said he was 'very surprised' to hear the announcement. (Georgia Public Information Office)

Still, he says he's finding success in "pointing to the data" and letting the public broadly understand that they need to continue to shelter in place.

He says many local business owners have contacted him to "adamantly indicate" they are not going to reopen on Friday. 

"They fear for the health of their staff, themselves and their client base. These are people who are understandably struggling financially right now. So I take their concerns very seriously," he said. 

"I think they realize that if they don't have healthy customers, they don't have customers at all."

Written by Adam Jacobson. Interviews produced by Katie Geleff.

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