ATLANTA — Georgia's governor published his order telling people to stay at home Thursday as known coronavirus infections in the state rose past 5,400 and officials blamed the virus for record-shattering unemployment claims.
Kemp's order will take effect at 6 p.m. Friday and last through at least April 13. It comes after days of pressure from local officials and widespread criticism of Kemp's claimed rationale that he was acting because federal officials had just confirmed that the virus is being spread by seemingly healthy people who are infected but have no symptoms such as fever or cough.
The sobering new figures on the pandemic's toll in Georgia came just a month after Kemp announced the state's first confirmed infections March 2.
At least 176 deaths in Georgia have been linked to the new virus, the state Department of Public Health reported. And more than 1,100 have been hospitalized since Kemp announced March 2 that officials had confirmed Georgia's first two coronavirus infections.
Kemp's order supersedes all local orders issued earlier, providing uniformity that many local officials sought.
The state police and Georgia National Guard are among the agencies to provide resources to enforce the order. Violations are misdemeanors and officials are "supposed to take reasonable steps" before arresting anyone or writing a ticket.
"When Georgians listen to the guidance provided and follow the orders issued, they are actively joining the fight against this deadly disease," Kemp told reporters as he announced the decision Wednesday.
The order says people must stay home unless they are providing or receiving food, household supplies, medical supplies or services, sanitation, safety services or essential home maintenance. It also says people can exercise outside as long as they stay 6 feet (2 meters) apart, but they're not supposed to have visitors
A wide range of critical infrastructure businesses as designated by the federal government can stay open, including laundromats, dry cleaners, home construction, hardware stores, defense plants, banks, sawmills and news outlets.
The measure limits nonessential businesses to the "necessary activities to maintain the value" of the business, but says they can stay open to the public subject to those restrictions.
Both essential and nonessential businesses are directed to screen workers for signs of illness, implement teleworking and staggered shifts for all possible workers, and increase the distance between work stations to at least 6 feet (2 meters).
It closes all dine-in restaurants, bars, gyms, movie theaters and other entertainment venues. However, the sale of guns and ammunition is expressly allowed to continue, as is food for takeout and delivery.
The measure does not expressly bar attendance at worship services, although Kemp spokesman Cody Hall said they would have to follow the same strictures regarding distancing and health checks as any business.
Meanwhile, unemployment claims processed in Georgia during the last full week of March rose to nearly 134,000, an increase more than 10 times greater than the number filed the week before. The Georgia Department of Labor said Thursday the staggering number set a new record for the most claims ever processed in one week. The previous record was more than 41,000 in January 2009.
Kemp had resisted following other states ordering residents to stay home, preferring to leave the decision to local governments. The governor had also said he was concerned far-reaching shutdown orders could inflict more damage to Georgia's already suffering economy.
Kemp said Wednesday that "individuals could have been infecting people before they ever felt bad."
"We didn't know that until the last 24 hours," Kemp said at his news conference with Dr. Kathleen Toomey, commissioner of the Georgia Department of Public Health. "And as Dr. Toomey told me, she goes, 'This is a game changer for us.'"
A number of Democrats, from Georgia and beyond, criticized Kemp as being slow to realize that people without symptoms can spread the virus. U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut tweeted: "Kemp isn't alone in totally misunderstanding the science and making fatal mistakes as a consequence."
Kemp spokeswoman Candice Broce fired back that his critics were making an "erroneous claim" that ignored other factors cited by the governor.
Experts have been warning for at least two months that infected people can spread the coronavirus even if they have no symptoms.
However, new research on asymptomatic transmission of the virus caused the federal government to change how it defines the risk of infection to Americans on Wednesday. The new guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says anyone exposed to the disease can be a carrier.