Harry Heiman, a public-health professor at Georgia State University, in Atlanta, told me the decision to reopen demonstrates how the state’s government has treated its citizens for years, well before Kemp’s 2018 election: “They’ve long prioritized policies that they believe support businesses, even though those same policies might not be good for workers or for the communities that those workers come from.” These policies have largely accomplished their desired goals: In the span of a generation, the population in the Atlanta metro area has doubled. Corporations including Mercedes-Benz USA, Newell Brands, and Norfolk Southern Railway have moved their headquarters to the state. But many of the programs to attract those employers, Heiman said, have weakened the state’s social safety net and labor protections.
That effect has burdened some populations more than others. “We’re opening up businesses that are not only high-touch and requiring proximity, but we’re also choosing industries where racial- and ethnic-minority communities are disproportionately represented,” Heiman noted. He said that choosing to restart these industries is likely to deepen the crisis for communities of color in the South. “They’re going back to a job that places them at increased risk for exposure to coronavirus, and they don’t have access to Medicaid, because we haven’t expanded it,” he explained. Across America, black and Latino people have died from COVID-19 at rates far outpacing that of white people. In Georgia, one of the country’s worst outbreaks has struck the rural, poor city of Albany, whose population is more than 70 percent black. In addition to the lack of Medicaid expansion, high incidences of medical problems such as hypertension and diabetes in the southeastern United States could make the coronavirus, which seems to prey on people with preexisting health issues, particularly deadly there.