Don't Blame Georgia's Restaurant Owners for Reopening. Blame Brian Kemp

The Governor forced them to make an impossible choice: Open up and put your employees and guests at risk, or let your business die.
May 1, 2020, 3:03pm
Brian Kemp
Photo via the governor's photo gallery

Now that restaurants in Georgia are legally allowed to reopen, it's easy to villainize those that do. Critics have lashed out at them on social media, accusing their owners of being driven by nothing but greed, prioritizing money over the health and safety of their employees, their guests, and anyone who comes in contact with them—along with the overburdened healthcare workers who might have to treat people who contract COVID-19 in their dining rooms. That's a convenient narrative. But it's not the whole story.

Imagine that you own a restaurant in Georgia right now. You've been closed for about two months. Even if you offer take-out and delivery, at best, your revenue has plummeted by roughly 80 percent. You applied for a Paycheck Protection Program loan, but you didn't get it; the fund ran dry after huge corporations exploited it for millions. Your rent is almost due, and your landlord won't budge on making you pay it in full. You're terrified that the business you built from scratch is about to collapse.

You're forced to make an impossible choice: Either open up, and put your employees, your customers, and your own family at risk of infection; or remain closed, and watch your restaurant die. What do you do?

That's the question keeping restaurant owners in Georgia up at night—including Ryan Pernice, the restaurateur behind Table & Main, Osteria Mattone, and Coalition Food and Beverage.

"We're trying to thread the needle of these incredibly difficult decisions: the responsibility I have to my staff, the law, the government stuff that comes down, public opinion, fact, information," Pernice told VICE. "It's a labyrinth of terrible decisions."

Pernice isn't opening for dine-in service yet. Like the vast majority of restaurant owners across Georgia, for him, it still feels too soon. But a handful of restaurants in the state have pulled the trigger. From a public health standpoint, they're taking a massive risk. More than 26,000 cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed in Georgia as of this week, and more than 1,000 people in the state have died from the virus. Those numbers likely paint an incomplete picture of the virus's real toll, knowing that only 1.3 percent of the state's population has been tested.

Considering those statistics, it's understandable that many folks in Georgia and beyond are outraged at restaurants that have reopened. But instead of unleashing that anger on restaurant owners, they should direct it at Governor Brian Kemp. Rather than working with health officials to find out whether it was actually safe for these businesses to reopen, Kemp foisted that decision onto restaurant owners. Chefs don't have teams of epidemiologists and public health experts to consult. They're not qualified to parse through mountains of constantly changing data and emergent research. They're not in a position to figure out if it's truly safe for them to open their doors, and they shouldn't have to wrestle with the torturous question of who might get sick and die if they do. That's Kemp's job.

And while he's encouraging Georgia's restaurants, bowling alleys, spas, salons, and a variety of other businesses to reopen, his mansion—which is ordinarily open for tours—remains closed to the public.

"If you call the Governor's mansion right now, they will incredulously be like, 'Um, we're closed? It's a pandemic?’" Hugh Acheson, who owns three restaurants in Georgia, told VICE. "So why are we on the front lines of this yet again? We were the first industry to get absolutely clobbered by this. And yet we're being asked to go out as guinea pigs and lab rats to see if we can reopen an economy."

Kemp has said that his response to COVID-19 has always been rooted in "putting the health and well-being of our citizens first." But given that experts agree cases in Georgia will likely spike as a result of what he's doing, it's hard to take him at his word. He could be motivated by the fact that Georgia's unemployment fund is rapidly running out of money. The state has received more than 1 million applications for unemployment since this pandemic started. Over the span of three weeks in April alone, the state paid out $600 million in claims.

Now that these restaurants are technically allowed to reopen, their employees could wind up getting kicked off of unemployment. The Department of Labor has explicitly stated that if someone refuses to work because they're afraid of contracting COVID-19, they'll no longer qualify for the benefit.

"It is really a burden shifted away from government. But that's what they wanted," Acheson said. "They wanted to get a lot of unemployment off their own books and into private hands. Forcing restaurants to open and saying, 'Well, we can't cover unemployment anymore because you are allowed to open, and yet you're refusing to'—that's the next play."

Acheson, who owns Five & Ten in Athens, Ga. and Empire State South and By George in Atlanta, isn't ready to reopen his restaurants yet. But when that day comes, he's being careful not to flat-out ask all of his employees back. He wants to make sure they don't have to choose between staying safe, or risking infection to feed their families—a situation Acheson thinks will become "rampant" among service industry workers.

"That is immediately ignoring people who are in households with medically susceptible people, people who live with their grandparents, or even their parents," Acheson said. "That's a precarious situation."

It's natural to criticize restaurant owners who, in deciding to reopen, force their employees to choose between their lives and their livelihoods. But restaurant owners never should have been asked to make that decision in the first place. Instead, Kemp should have had the wisdom, and the empathy, to know that in allowing them to reopen, he wasn't doing them a favor; he was burdening them with a moral catch-22.

There's nothing city and county leaders in Georgia can do to help. Kemp's order supersedes any legislation they may want to pass overturning it. To make matters worse, he's lifting Georgia's shelter-in-place order, effective Friday—and local officials can't do anything about that, either.

Cases of COVID-19 are projected to skyrocket in the state. When they do, you'll be tempted to blame everyday Georgians who return to living like there's not a global pandemic on our hands, and you'll be tempted to blame the businesses who serve them. Don't. Blame Brian Kemp.

Follow Drew Schwartz on Twitter.

This article originally appeared on VICE US.