Revisiting Georgia’s COVID-19 policies
Georgia’s reopening and policymakers’ decision to eschew mask mandates also elicited fiery, hyperbolic tirades. “Reopening [Georgia’s] businesses is a calculated, deliberate act of violence,” read one news article; the Washington Post wrote, “Georgia’s governor is a prime example of the fecklessness that is killing Americans;” and online commenters accused Georgia’s leaders of orchestrating mass murder through the state’s pandemic response.
This is just a small sampling of the blowback that Georgia received in the early days of the pandemic. However, as the severity of COVID-19 wanes and the pandemic moves into the endemic phase, researchers can start to grade COVID-19 responses, and the preliminary data doesn’t support the exaggerated objections.
After reopening, Georgia’s pandemic response wasn’t quite as laissez-faire as its critics said, but it could be best described as freedom of self-determination. The government encouraged social distancing, mask-wearing, isolating when ill, and virtually every other well-reasoned piece of advice found in every state—both red and blue. But the Peach State government ultimately opted against many formal mandates, unlike numerous states. In short, Georgians were asked, but not forced to comply with sage recommendations.
While Georgia weathered the pandemic in many ways, it inflicted a terrible human toll. There have been over 37,000 COVID-19 deaths and nearly 2.6 million known reported cases since the pandemic began in the Peach State, and Georgia ranks the 12th highest in COVID-19 deaths per capita, according to Statista. Given this information, it might seem as though naysayers were right to criticize Georgia’s first-in-the-nation reopening and its more freewheeling approach, but not so fast.
Compared to some states that reopened much later and that maintained comparatively heavy-handed COVID-19 restrictions, Georgia fared about the same, if not a little better. New Jersey and New Mexico have higher COVID-19 death rates per capita than Georgia, and New York boasts a rate that is nearly identical to Georgia’s. This suggests that the diverging strategies from these states made little difference and that state governments on their own largely didn’t have the power to influence the pandemic.
States’ pandemic responses, however, did have the power to impede the economy. After all, it’s hard to make a living when the government forces workers to shelter at home and it is hard to keep businesses afloat when the state limits customers from entering businesses for extended periods of time. This may very well be why many of the states that reopened early and lifted restrictions have more robust economies.
Georgia’s unemployment rate is 3.0 percent, while New York’s is 4.4, New Jersey’s is 3.9 and New Mexico’s is 5.1. In fact, as the Wall Street Journal opined, “Red states are winning the post-pandemic economy,” and while many factors influence economic health, this success is likely partially related to how states handled the pandemic.
Generally speaking, red states’ COVID-19 responses were less restrictive and more prone to reopening early than blue states, but there were some exceptions to this rule. The second state to reopen was Colorado, and perhaps not-so-coincidentally, their unemployment rate sits only half of a percentage point higher than Georgia’s, but for some reason, their mortality rates paled in comparison to the Peach State’s—ranking 42nd in the county.
The fact that, despite espousing some similar policies, both Georgia and Colorado fared so differently again implies that state governments could only influence the course of the pandemic in limited ways. Research in this area will certainly continue for decades, but given the available data, the existence of some state mandates was probably a less reliable indicator of how a state would fare. Instead, a combination of information about states, like their population density, poverty rates, access to healthcare, the number of people with comorbidities, and people’s willingness to follow mitigation strategies voluntarily, were likely far more important factors.
Whatever the case, it seems clear that predictions of Georgia’s apocalypse and that Georgia’s leaders were committing mass murder were patently false. If many state COVID-19 mandates had little—if any—statistically significant impacts but had deleterious effects on the economy, then Georgia’s leaders made some wise decisions.