Georgia eateries put menus on tables again as more U.S. states ease restrictions

ATLANTA (Reuters) – Georgia on Monday allowed residents to dine at restaurants for the first time in a month, as more U.S. states began easing restrictions where the coronavirus outbreak has taken a relatively light toll.

Jeff Mynatt and Billy Grant eat lunch at Moe’s Original BBQ after it reopened to the public as part of the phased reopening of businesses and restaurants from the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) restrictions in Atlanta, Georgia, U.S. April 27, 2020. REUTERS/Elijah Nouvelage

Keen to revive their battered economies despite the warnings of health experts, a handful of states from Montana to Mississippi were also set to reopen some businesses deemed to be nonessential.

Alaska, Oklahoma and South Carolina, along with Georgia, previously took such steps, after weeks of mandatory lockdowns that threw millions of Americans out of work.

President Donald Trump and some local officials had criticized Georgia Governor Brian Kemp for orders that enabled restaurants and theaters to join a list of businesses, such as hair and nail salons, barber shops and tattoo parlors, allowed to reopen last week, with social-distancing restrictions still in force.

Even so, some restaurant owners and managers in the state capital Atlanta said they would not reopen on Monday.

“I have a daughter and I want to be around for her,” Steve Pitts, general manager of Manuel’s Tavern, a fixture for more than 60 years, told Reuters.

In the hardest-hit states of New York and New Jersey, part of a metropolitan region of about 32 million people, governors signaled that even limited restarting of business activities was at least weeks away.

Even though Kemp has allowed movie theaters to reopen, three major chains – AMC, Regal and Cinemark – as well as most or all smaller chains shut all venues nationwide in mid-March and have no plans to reopen anywhere for the time being.

Drive-in theaters may be an exception. The Swan Drive-In Theatre in Blue Ridge, about 90 miles (145 km) north of Atlanta, will open this weekend, with new rules for parking and concessions to assure social distancing, according to a recorded telephone message.

UNEMPLOYMENT SHOCK

Business shutdowns have led to a record 26.5 million Americans filing for unemployment benefits since mid-March with forecasts by the Trump administration that the jobless rate would likely hit 16% or more in April.

The states reopening some businesses this week are in the South, Midwest and West. Among them, Tennessee has recorded 181 deaths out of more than 9,600 infections, Minnesota 272 from about 3,600 cases, and Georgia more than 940 deaths from at least 23,700 cases, according to a Reuters tally.

That contrasts with more densely populated New York and New Jersey, which combined account for nearly 30,000 fatalities, or more than half the U.S. total of at least 55,000 as coronavirus cases approached 1 million on Monday.

Public health authorities warn that increasing human interactions and economic activity may spark a fresh surge of infections just as social distancing measures appeared to be bringing cases under control.

Federal guidelines call for a state to record 14 days of declining case numbers before moving ahead with a phased-in relaxation of restrictions and to have testing and contact tracing programs in place. Contact tracing involves tracking down and testing people who may have been near others infected.

In downtown Atlanta, near the Georgia Tech campus, Brian Mancuso, 44, owner of Moe’s Original BBQ, could hardly wait to open his doors on Monday morning.

“I don’t know if this is a big step to normal, but at least it’s something,” said Mancuso, who had only three staff and waited on tables himself. Each time they touched a surface, they changed gloves before handling food or a basket or utensil.

In a place that seats 90 and where people usually line up outside at lunch time, there were just three construction workers eating out on the patio, two people at the bar and two lawyers waiting for food at the counter. All of the dine-in customers declined to be interviewed.

In Florida, Governor Ron DeSantis said that White House Coronavirus task force coordinator Deborah Birx told him on Monday that his state satisfied reopening criteria, such as a two-week fall in new cases.

DeSantis said he would work with harder-hit counties in southeast Florida such as Miami, Palm Beach and Broward, to see if their reopening timeframe would be different.

“It really is a different ballgame when you compare Southeast Florida to the rest. I think pretty much the rest of the state has really handled this really well,” DeSantis told a news conference.

California Governor Gavin Newsom promised greater enforcement of public health restrictions after crowds jammed beaches over the weekend.

ROADMAPS

Officials in New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts have for weeks emphasized that more testing and contact tracing for the virus needed to be in place before they could implement roadmaps for relaxing stay-at-home orders and other restrictions.

Slideshow (8 Images)

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said at his daily briefing on Monday that any easing would need to be coordinated and monitored, and fit into an overall multi-state plan.

Cuomo said he would likely extend the stay-at-home order in many parts of the state on May 15, but he was looking to reopen some businesses, including manufacturing and construction, in parts of the state with fewer cases of the virus.

“We have to coordinate as a region,” he said. “So everybody in that region has to have the same policy … when it comes to testing, when it comes to tracing – and that region’s plan has to fit into our overall multi-state plan.”

Reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta; Susan Heavey in Washington; additional reporting by Maria Caspani, Jessica Resnick-Ault, Barbara Goldberg, Nathan Layne, Andrew Hay, Lisa Shumaker, Sharon Bernstein and Jill Serjeant; writing by Grant McCool; Editing by Frank McGurty and Howard Goller

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