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What these 2 Georgia mayors think about reopening their state

Georgia’s governor says the state will allow some businesses to reopen beginning this Friday -- a week before his stay-at-home order expires. It’s a decision President Trump says he opposes. So far, Georgia has seen more than 20,000 cases and 800 deaths from COVID-19. For two views on the debate, Judy Woodruff talks to Valdosta’s mayor, Scott James Matheson, and Hardie Davis, mayor of Augusta.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    In Georgia, the governor says the state will allow some businesses to reopen beginning tomorrow.

    That's a week before his stay-at-home order expires. It's a decision President Trump said yesterday he disagrees with. So far, Georgia has seen more than 20,000 cases and more than 800 deaths from COVID-19.

    We have two views on how local communities in the state are preparing to reopen, first from Scott James Matheson. He is the mayor of Valdosta in Southern Georgia.

    Mayor Matheson, thank you very much for talking with us.

    First of all, did the governor consult with you? Were you surprised when you learned there was going to be this partial reopening this week?

  • Mayor Scott Matheson:

    So, constant contact along the way, but, no, I was caught by surprise that it went a week early.

    We were under the statewide order for shelter at home through the 30th, so I thought the natural walk-back in date was going to be Friday, May 31. It did take me by surprise.

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And — excuse me.

    And what did you think when you heard the governor say, we're going to start to reopen gyms, hair salons, barbershops, and then places where people go to eat, restaurants, starting next week, some of them?

  • Mayor Scott Matheson:

    Yes, I think we're going to go to restaurants and theaters starting on Monday, but this Friday, tomorrow, we're on the eve of starting the state — or kick-starting our town again.

    And we will adapt. If he says that's the way to go, then he's been pretty spot on most of the way. So, we will adapt.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I'm sure you know, Mayor Matheson, that health experts are quite mixed and divided on this question.

    Many of them say, until we know more about who's been exposed to COVID-19, that it's risky to do this. How did you — how are you thinking about making your own decisions on this?

  • Mayor Scott Matheson:

    Well, when he releases us, once we get out from under that state order on the 30th, it will be my decision again.

    But right now, again, as you can see around me, we're in a shelter at home still, so we're spending most of our time here. When we come out from under it, we're going to move as a community together. Lowndes County, as a whole, has done very well. We have only had 122 cases, only four fatalities.

    So, in a population of about 120,000, city and county, that's — I think I have calculated it as 0.08 percent. So, we will move on the fact that we have been doing pretty good from the very beginning.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Did it give you pause when you heard President Trump say he disagreed with Governor Kemp's decision?

  • Mayor Scott Matheson:

    Yes, sure.

    When are you doing the top dog, and then the top dog and your state are in disagreement, it puts it back in your lap. And, again, I think we — the county commission chairman and myself have moved very responsibly the entire way.

    And we will continue to do so. I think our town and our people have moved very responsibly, so we're going to go on that. And, obviously, you know just to our west by an hour-and-a-half, we have the hot spot in the country in Dougherty County, Georgia.

    So, we obviously have to keep an eye on the communities around us as well.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    What kind of steps are you taking in Valdosta, as your, again, beauty salons, barbershops, bowling alleys open, and then restaurants and movies next week? What kinds of things are going to be different?

  • Mayor Scott Matheson:

    Well, we're going to continue to meet with all our health experts.

    Our Department of Public health has done a very good job in the state. Our major medical center, South Georgia Medical Center here, we meet with them twice daily, believe it or not. And that keeps us up to speed on any developments.

    In the town, we're just going to let the business owners realize that people are not going to rush back. Shelter-at-home order is still into the 30th. So they're going back a week ahead of that.

    And I got to figure and I got to factor they're just going to get a chance to fight for their business and fight for their life. Their business is not going to come back in any time soon. So I wish them the best of luck.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Are the medical experts you're talking to, the people you trust in the health care community, are they in agreement that this is the right thing?

  • Mayor Scott Matheson:

    I don't think so.

    I think they still approach it with lots of words of caution, as a matter of fact. We're going to move forward with a balance. We lean toward their advice, first and foremost, but then we got to know the business community has to have a voice at the table as well.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Mayor Scott Matheson of Valdosta, Georgia, thank you very much for talking with us, and we wish you the very best.

  • Mayor Scott Matheson:

    Thank you, Judy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And now a different perspective on Georgia's planned reopening. Mayor Hardie Davis of Augusta joins us.

    Mayor Davis, thank you very much for talking with us.

    And what was your reaction when you learned from Governor Kemp that things will start to reopen in the state tomorrow?

  • Mayor Hardie Davis:

    Ms. Woodruff, I was surprised, quite frankly, as many of my colleagues were across the state of Georgia.

    Again, as the mayor of Georgia's second largest city, as someone who has enjoyed a strong relationship with Governor Kemp, I think that when we looked at the fact that, just a week prior, he extended the shelter-in-place order until the 30th of April, and, of course, the pandemic declaration of emergency until the 13th of May, it was just, quite frankly, shocking that we would move to that place as quickly as we were, in light of the fact that we still, in Georgia, cannot conduct sufficient enough testing across the state, let alone in Augusta.

    We're not able to do contact tracing in sufficient numbers, and then, of course, the issues around treatment. Given the fact that there's no current vaccine and/or therapies for this, I think it's very difficult to think that we're going to move to a place under the assumption that we have already reached the peak in Georgia, let alone in any of these communities that we find ourselves in.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, given that, are you going to comply with what the governor says is going to happen?

    I noticed he said that there's not — he said local action can't be taken that's more or less restrictive than what he's saying.

  • Mayor Hardie Davis:

    Well, again, I think all of us across the state are willing to comply with the governor's executive order.

    What I have shared with folks in Augusta is that we're going to take a very deliberative approach in terms of how we comply with that, particularly in terms of giving guidance to those business owners, whether it's our restaurants, whether it's our barbershops, hair salons, nail salons, and, of course, our gymnasiums that are going to be opening up where.

    We're working very hard to make sure that we're communicating, one, what the governor's executive order clearly states and expects of people. We have also told folks that they should be waiting on guidance from the governor's office, so that they can be very clear about what the requirements and expectations are.

    The reality of it, as we move forward, is that this will become the norm. I don't even want to use the term a new norm, but it's going to be the norm in terms of social distancing, the requirements around sanitization in places of business, whether it's restaurants or gymnasiums.

    We're going to do things differently in terms of how we conduct business.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Right.

  • Mayor Hardie Davis:

    And as it relates to the people, yes, there's always the question of personal responsibility, but none of us expected, planned for, or anticipated COVID-19 being the issue of the day.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Just quickly, what percentage of the businesses affected do you think are actually going to go ahead and reopen tomorrow?

  • Mayor Hardie Davis:

    Well, we're getting e-mails. We have gotten them since Monday.

    And you have got mixed responses from people. You have got some who say, Mayor, we're going to continue to follow your lead and not open yet. We don't believe that we have met the peak.

    And then you have got some who are saying they're going to do soft openings that are really focused around keeping their buildings clean, going in and doing a deep clean and sanitization.

    But, beyond that, it's a fairly mixed response, particularly because people are afraid. They're concerned about the fact that, one, you could be working with someone who's asymptomatic and carrying the virus, and the next thing you know, not only are you infected, but your colleagues who you work with are infected as well.

    So, they're proceeding with a grave abundance of caution.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, finally, quickly, I know you have a major medical center there in Augusta. What sort of advice are you getting from the medical community?

  • Mayor Hardie Davis:

    Well, they too share the concern around the fact that we haven't reached our peak yet.

    They have also been identified by the governor as the lead agency for testing for the state of Georgia. And so they're — they're proceeding with caution as well.

    And that's the guidance that they're giving us here in Augusta. Along with my other hospitals, we have got a fairly strong health care community here. So, I think we have those resources available to us.

    But it's just the unknowns around testing, who has the virus, and who doesn't.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Mayor Hardie Davis of Augusta, Georgia, thank you very much. And we wish you the very best with all you're doing.

  • Mayor Hardie Davis:

    Thanks so much, Judy.

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