You’ve Got to Be Kidding Me

“Oh hey, look, Brian Kemp’s doing a press conference. I wonder what he’ll say. Maybe he’ll extend the stay-at-home order and have us all wear masks in public. Maybe he’ll tell us all how we need to continue to hunker down and stay the course.” All of these admittedly naïve thoughts and more ran through my mind, quickly followed by “What’s that? You’re opening what when?” I listened on as our governor announced his plans to reopen restaurants, bowling alleys, and basically all the businesses where people have to touch each other, all within the week. I slowly picked my jaw up off the floor. You’ve got to be kidding me.

There’s a scene in The Sopranos where Tony Soprano tells Richie Aprile, “Those who want respect, give respect.” Richie then turns to Jackie Jr. and says, “See, he just told you to shut the fuck up. And he told me to go fuck myself.” Monday, at around 4 o’clock in the afternoon, Governor Brian Kemp told us all to go fuck ourselves.

Actually, “fuck off and die” would be more accurate, as that’s exactly what will happen. The effects of this truly, totally disastrous decision gravely endanger the health and lives of countless innocent people in Georgia and beyond. This decision is reckless, short-sighted, and irresponsible. This decision turns the coronavirus from a natural disaster into a man-made catastrophe. It does not have to be this way.

Many of us have been staying at home, sheltering in place for some time now. We’ve been taking ourselves out of circulation to stop the spread, flatten the curve, and so on. We’ve been worried about the ripple effect of a few potential pebbles in a pond. And here comes Kemp, screaming through the air crying, “Cannonball!”

Even by the most brutal, icy-veined utilitarian standards, this is a literally calamitous, disastrous decision.  The utilitarian ideal decision would of course be the one that yields the best possible outcome for the most people: the “greatest good for the greatest number.” This decision is the exact opposite of that.

It is important to recognize just how badly small business owners are hurting right now, to put it incredibly lightly. We can and should recognize and empathize with the anguished, hand-wringing uncertainty that these past five weeks have brought for small business owners. In the face of this uncertainty, many of these small business owners still made the voluntary decision to close well before the city or state compelled them to do so. That difficult decision saved our lives.

These small business owners have gone above and beyond their part in effectively keeping a lid on this thing by remaining closed. Kemp even went so far as to show concern for their collective mental health. To tell them that they can reopen now, when we are still so very much in the thick of this pandemic, is tantamount to taunting, salt in the wound, kicking them when they’re down. Of course they want to reopen, but not this soon, and certainly not like this.

These business owners have had to agonize more than enough already and frankly should have begun receiving crucial government assistance over a month ago. Instead, they are given this impossible choice to make? To stay closed and receive no assistance, or to reopen, in the middle of a pandemic, and risk the welfare of their employees and of the communities they serve? No, this is an unconscionable low-blow to an industry already on its knees. This is the “free choice” logic of the stick-up artist who says, “Your money or your life.” This industry deserves better.

Even by the White House’s timetable, this is a needlessly accelerated ramping up. In a peculiar move of apparent, transparent teacher’s pet oneupmanship, Kemp has chosen to open the state of Georgia even ahead of the timeframe suggested. The result is a game of chicken with local business owners, a staring contest that is as dangerous as it is needless.

And those people being called back to work: what about their mental health? Many people in the industry just finally got their unemployment money to come through. They used that money to pay for this month’s rent, groceries, necessities. And now, with the snap of a finger, they’re cut off? And worse, they’re now expected to go back to work and risk infecting themselves, their customers and co-workers, and their loved ones back home? At best, this is morally reprehensible and indefensible; at worst, it constitutes nothing short of a death sentence, or, as George Chidi puts it in his recent letter, “political murder.” Let us at least call it by its name.

This isn’t just a gigantic middle finger to those who work in the service industry. No, this is also a massive slap in the face and knife in the back of medical workers everywhere. These people are struggling day in and day out to treat those in need. Long on patients and short on supplies, they are holding this situation together with both hands. This decision just cranked up the crisis conveyor belt to an untold, intolerable, and untenable degree.

But it doesn’t end there. No, this affects all of us. Social distancing and staying at home only work to stop the spread if we all do it. Kemp just made the state of Georgia the weakest link, not to mention a shameful laughingstock and worse.

For those mocking and making fun of the decision from afar, unfortunately this affects you too. The inevitable spike in deaths and cases resulting from this decision will determine when we can all get back to life as we knew it. Travel and technology have made the world a smaller place, a global village. You wouldn’t laugh at your neighbor’s house being on fire any more than your liver would make fun of your kidneys for having diabetes. Same team.

So, quick question. What happened to all the posturing bravado and general would-be cocksure swagger of Trump acolytes such as Kemp now that the call to actual leadership has come? These politicians ran for office on a tough-guy, maverick, cowboy platform. We are now in the midst of an ongoing invasion. We are under attack. Where are the guys from the campaign ads? Where have all the cowboys gone?

I remember Kemp’s campaign ads. I remember him in his “big truck, just in case I need to round up criminal illegals and take ’em home myself” (“Just in case?” So he’s what, just cruisin’ around, rounding up immigrants in his free time?) What about this virus? Are you ready to make the tough decisions when it comes to that? Are you going to hogtie the coronavirus and throw that in the bed of your pickup truck too? Because this is the exact opposite of how you do that.

To be fair, we could have seen this coming. We could have seen this coming over a month ago, when we all expected him to shut down restaurants, and he posted this video of himself basically doing a commercial for a beloved fast food restaurant instead. We could have seen this coming three weeks ago, when Mayor Bottoms wanted to shut down the city of Atlanta in the morning, and Kemp asked her to wait until his 5PM press conference in which he said basically nothing, causing her to delay the order and costing us Atlantans 14 precious hours early in the spread. Or two weeks ago, when he said it had just now come to his attention that people showing no symptoms could still transmit the virus? No, sir. Unacceptable. Do better.

There are undoubtedly those who will commend Kemp’s decision as a show of strength and of bravery, of having the “courage of his convictions.” Let us be clear. It is not brave to tell others to get back to work during a raging global pandemic. It is not courageous to send your constituents off needlessly to die. Quite the contrary: it is a display of utter cowardice, come at a time when this state needs actual leadership most.

Leaders must often make the unpopular decision. We’re all familiar with the Philadelphia public health director who, during the 1918 pandemic, chose not to cancel the patriotic Liberty Loan Parade to boost morale (and money) for the war effort. 200,000 people attended. In 72 hours, all of the city’s hospitals were at capacity, and 2,600 had died. (WWI ended six weeks later; unrelated.)

The health commissioner in St. Louis, however, made the decision to lock down the city, saving thousands of lives. It was an unpopular decision, yet it saved the actual population. That’s a funny thing about so-called “populists.” Their decisions have everyone’s interests at heart, everyone except for the actual population. This is undeniably Brian Kemp’s 1918 Liberty Loan Parade moment. This is the sound of history repeating.

Kemp made this decision not in light of science, as he says, but despite science. It is a sacrifice of lives he deems most disposable on the altar of business and budget: a reckoning in the truest, most calculative sense. It is gerrymandering and vote stripping by biohazard. It is putting people’s lives willfully at risk because that seems somehow preferable to allowing them to stay on unemployment until safe conditions return. Remember: imperiling any of us imperils all of us. The lives of the workers in these industries are not disposable. Far from it. You think it’s so safe? You do it.

We may all wish and hope for Kemp’s change of heart and reconsideration of his treatment of this deadly respiratory viral pandemic. But if we’re holding our breath, it’s not for him, but because of him.

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