Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms was perplexed when she heard the news earlier this week that the Republican governor of her state, Brian Kemp, had decided to reopen some businesses on Friday April 24.
The governor announced plans to allow barbershops, nail salons, gyms, churches and hair salons to reopen by this Friday. During a press conference on Monday, April 20, Kemp said, “As a small business person for over 30 years, I know the impact of this pandemic on hardworking Georgians in every ZIP code and every community.” By Monday, April 27, Kemp plans to allow some restaurants and movie theaters to reopen as well.
Many also called out Kemp’s proposal for targeting places Black folks tend to own and/or frequent even going as far as inferring this “test” to reopen is a way to experiment on people of color. Members of the Georgia Legislative Black Caucus (GLBC) released a statement expressing their disappointment with Kemp’s decision.
“We all want to return to business as usual and return businesses to work; however, our collective future has been permanently changed by COVID-19,” GLBC Chair Rep. Karen Bennett, (D-Stone Mountain), said in a statement to The Center Square. “We cannot and will not stand silently by and watch the premature opening of businesses that are mostly in the African-American communities. We cannot sacrifice the lives of people tomorrow to satisfy the wants of a few today.”
As the Democratic mayor of the state’s capital and a potential vice president running mate with Joe Biden, Lance Bottoms is not just going to sit idly by as the Governor’s decision could potentially put more lives at risk.
As of Wednesday, April 22, Georgia has experienced 846 coronavirus-related deaths, according to the Georgia Department of Public Health with 21,102 testing positive for the disease. A three-hour drive north from Atlanta is Albany, Georgia which, at the beginning of April, became the fourth most-affected area in the country with 659 cases for every 100,000 people according to Johns Hopkins University researchers.. The majority of those who have died were Black.
And as Lance Bottoms is taking every opportunity to vocalize her opposition to this plan and, like many Black leaders before her, she is now feeling the brunt of opposition in the form of racist attacks.
On Wednesday night (April 22,) after a cable news blitz of appearances to discuss her plans to keep Atlanta residents safe, Mayor Bottoms posted a screenshot of a text message she received saying, “N***er, just shut up and RE-OPEN ATLANTA!”
“With my daughter looking over my shoulder, I received this message on my phone. I pray for you,” Bottoms posted. She followed with a Martin Luther King Jr. quote, “Conscientious stupidity or sincere ignorance.”
The Mayor would prefer the governor listen to the pandemic experts who confirm that it’s too soon to reopen businesses and that the statewide shelter-in-place order should be extended past its current April 30 deadline.
During the President’s daily White House briefing on Wednesday (April 22), Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top expert on infectious diseases, said he believed Kemp’s efforts to reopen Georgia’s businesses could result in even more deaths as he predicts the virus will once again peak in the fall.
“If I were advising the governor, I would tell him that he should be careful. I would advise him not to just turn the switch on and go. Because there is a danger of a rebound,” Fauci said.
Even President Donald Trump shared his disappointment in Kemp’s decision during a White House briefing Wednesday saying that “it’s just too soon.”
Despite also hearing from other Georgia mayors, including Bottoms, health experts and residents voicing concerns, the Trump loyalist tweeted that he appreciated Trump’s “bold leadership and insight,” but he still plans to reopen the state.
Bottoms does not want to see those numbers increase anywhere in the state, especially Atlanta, and remains steadfast and resolute in her efforts to ensure people put their health before their wallets.
In an interview with BET.com, Mayor Bottoms explained her concerns, discussed her personal losses due to the coronavirus and plans to get people back to work safely.
*This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
BET.com: What do you predict will happen if Governor Kemp proceeds with his plan to reopen the state starting on Friday?
Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms: It is my hope that they will not do that. And I have been speaking out at every opportunity that I have, over the last day or so just urging people to stay at home. There are some people who are eager to get out. Some people who are concerned about balancing staying at home versus their livelihood and those are very real concerns, at the top of that list needs to be our well-being.
We know that in the African-American community, there are beauty of barber shops on every single corner and the clientele will be other African-Americans who will come in and out and potentially take COVID-19 back into their homes where our families have all of the underlying conditions by and large that are making this virus deadly. Whether it be the high asthma rate that we have in this city or other underlying conditions like high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, things that are very common in the African-American community. I believe that by opening up these businesses, you are essentially opening up breeding grounds that can be deadly for our community.
BET.com: What are your concerns about Black communities in Georgia in particular given the disparities in COVID-19 infection and death rates?
Mayor Bottoms: When I look at the number of people who are perishing and testing positive, I can actually put names with those numbers. I can talk about my college roommate’s mother who was on a ventilator for nearly 15 days. I can speak about my son’s best friend’s mother who has tested positive three times in a month. I can speak of one of my best friends from high school whose stepfather just passed away. For me, it’s more than looking at numbers. I’m looking at us and it concerns me. We aren’t fighting this off in a way that other communities are able to do it with better access to health care and not having the challenges of many of the underlying conditions that we have and so it concerns me.
I worry that if you put this on top of the economic constraints that many of us face as a community on a daily basis, we are having to make choices between our life and our money. I understand that’s a difficult choice to make, but this is why in Atlanta, we’ve done things to try and make this load a little easier for people to carry.
We launched a Beauty and Barbershop Relief Fund, hoping that we can get philanthropic and community donations to help with that so that we can put a little money in the pockets of the people who keep us looking good every day. We’ve launched a small business loan fund, delayed water bill payments, and we’ve paused evictions for people who have vouchers through our housing authority. We’ve done so many things to try to anticipate how we can make this a little easier to navigate.
BET.com: What are you hearing from the people of Atlanta about the plan to reopen? Are folks mad, disgusted, anxious, or encouraged to get back to work?
Mayor Bottoms: Overwhelmingly, what I’m hearing is that people think it’s a terrible idea. People are confused. They don’t understand and [are] asking, ‘Is it safe to go back?’ I’ve heard restaurant owners say that they will not reopen because it will be more devastating to their business to reopen and then to shut down again. They’re not going to put their people at risk. I’ve also seen people who have said, ‘I don’t have a choice… I gotta go back to work.’ So that’s heartbreaking when you see that because you see the fear in their eyes.
I’ve said to people, you don’t have to listen to me. Don’t listen to the governor. Don’t listen to the President. Listen to the scientists. Listen to the experts. Listen to the healthcare professionals who are saying we need you to stay home to save lives.
BET.com: If Kemp’s plan to reopen is too much too soon, then what’s the better solution to get the economy going in the state right now?
Mayor Bottoms: There is a more responsible solution. If you want to ease restrictions, let’s look at medical offices, and people who truly offer essential services, and people who are trained to use PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) and at least understand the risk and know how to mitigate them. But if you’re telling me, that as mayor of Atlanta, I’m competing on the open market to get PPE for my sanitation workers and I should now expect that somehow, my hairstylist can somehow jump in the fray and get enough PPE to put on and protect me when I get my hair done is just ridiculous. The [White House] guidelines say that we should be showing up to a 14-day decline in COVID-19 cases in order to reopen the state and we haven’t shown that decline. In fact, the numbers are still rising.
BET.com: What are you hearing from other mayors in your state?
Mayor Bottoms: Everyone was stunned, then angry, then dismayed and even saddened. I have spoken to the mayor of Augusta, the mayor of Albany, which has the biggest outbreak in the state, and the mayors of Columbus, Georgia and Savannah and the list goes on. None of us heard from the governor and we’re all wondering what he could possibly be thinking. Look, he’s the governor. I don’t expect to receive a call every time he makes a decision, but something of this magnitude, by and large across the state, all of the mayor’s agree that [we should have] at least had an opportunity to express our concerns because it leaves me in the position that I’m in now. People are asking me, what was the governor thinking? What was the rationale? I don’t know.
BET.com: You reacted strongly to a news report featuring the arrest of two Black men who had been racially profiled by police for wearing masks in public. What have you done to address these ongoing concerns as the call for wearing masks in public increases?
Mayor Bottoms: In my former life I was a magistrate judge. I recalled that there’s a law on the books that says that you could be arrested for wearing a mask in the state. When I saw the story of the two men who were being followed in a store for wearing masks, it immediately came to mind that that is illegal in Georgia. I immediately signed an order suspending the Atlanta Police Department’s ability to arrest people for wearing masks during this time. And thankfully, the governor followed by issuing an executive order that suspends the state’s enforcement of that law as well.
BET.com: What’s your message/advice to Atlanta residents in light of the governor’s plans to reopen?
Mayor Bottoms: We’re not the first generation to endure hardships. In the same way that generations before us and our ancestors overcame insurmountable odds, we can, and we will also. They were able to make it through because they exercised good judgment. They were patient, and they knew that a better day was coming. I hope that we would rely on that strength from our ancestors at this time. We have to use our heads as well as our hearts and rely on our faith and believe that there’s something better in store and on the horizon.
Wendy L. Wilson is the News Director at BET.com. You can follow her on Twitter @WendyLWilson_
Photo by Paras Griffin/Getty Images for Essence