ATLANTA — President Donald Trump said Wednesday that he "disagreed strongly" with the decision by Georgia's Republican governor to reopen salons, gyms and other nonessential businesses later this week, saying, "It's just too soon."
Trump's comments at a daily White House briefing marked an abrupt shift in tone. Just last week, the president urged his supporters on Twitter to protest against statewide closures in three Democratic-led states — at the same time that mostly Republican governors like Brian Kemp were taking steps to lift stay-at-home restrictions.
Kemp announced earlier this week that as of Friday, elective medical procedures could resume in Georgia, and that barbershops, nail salons and gyms could reopen with restrictions. Limited in-restaurant dining is scheduled to resume on Monday.
The announcement immediately prompted pushback by Atlanta's Democratic mayor, other political opponents and health experts who warned that the state has not yet taken the steps recommended under federal guidelines to reopen the economy safely.
Georgia ranks in the bottom 10 U.S. states in per capita testing for the coronavirus. Officials are struggling to increase testing for new infections and boost tracking of those in contact with infected people. If that isn't done, health officials said, the state risks a quick rebound of COVID-19.
"The virus moves faster than government does," said Dr. Jennifer Nuzzo, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. "So if I had to bet on who would come out of the gate faster, it would be the virus."
Trump has been stressing the importance of reopening states sooner than later to get the U.S. economy back on track and his administration recently announced a three-phase plan for making that happen. He also had health experts working with his administration present a lengthy briefing last week to show that states would have the testing capacity necessary to track and contain infections and start lifting restrictions.
But on Wednesday, he said he told Kemp that he had misgivings over the governor's plan to reopen quickly. He also said that he would not stand in his way.
"I want him to do what he thinks is right," Trump said. "But I disagree with him on what he's doing. ... I think (opening) spas and beauty salons and tattoo parlors and barbershops in phase one ... it's just too soon."
Kemp responded in a tweet Wednesday night that he appreciated Trump's guidance but would move forward with his plan.
"Our next measured step is driven by data and guided by state public health officials," the governor said. "I am confident that business owners who decide to reopen will adhere to minimum basic operations, which prioritize the health and well-being of employees and customers."
Trump's reopening guidelines recommend 14 days of declining new infections before moving to the reopening phase that Kemp has called for. That means testing health care workers and people showing symptoms, as well as screening others not showing symptoms.
The number of tests administered in Georgia had plateaued between 3,500 to 4,000 a day. However, on Wednesday, the state reported almost 6,000 tests over 24 hours, with Kemp saying on a conference call with Republican U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler that Georgia was "really ramping up" its capacity.
State Public Health Commissioner Kathleen Toomey said the state will expand its ability to "aggressively" trace the contacts of infected people.
"This is the way we're going to keep spread from occurring, even as we begin to gradually open up the state," Toomey said.
As of Wednesday, more than 21,000 people in Georgia had been infected with the virus and more than 840 had died, according to the state Department of Public Health.
Sean Bear, an epidemiologist with the department's eight-county district that includes Savannah, said intensive contact tracing has likely helped slow infections in his region. Bear said the coastal district kept tracking contacts, unlike areas where rising caseloads forced officials to largely stop.
The state hasn't said how many people are tracing contacts now, how many it seeks, or how quickly the state's 18 public health districts can ramp up.
Toomey and Kemp said the state will use a cellphone app to track infected people, and ask those people to voluntarily share cellphone data so that the state can find other contacts.
In announcing his reopening plan, Kemp remarked, "There are a lot of people that are hurting really bad right now on the financial end of things — our hard-working Georgians. And we're trying to do all we can to allow them to start moving back into the work force in a limited and safe way."
Many businesses and workers are holding back for fear of illness.
Dewond Brown, 42, was laid off in March from an Atlanta-area restaurant as a line cook making $16.40 hourly.
Worried about his high blood pressure, he said he wouldn't go back if his employer reopened. He said he would want to know coworkers tested negative and see a sharp drop in new cases.
"I understand everybody wants to get back to normal, but you hear the medical people say everyday it's not time yet," he said.