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Episode 997: Georgia's Open Question

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Episode 997: Georgia's Open Question

Episode 997: Georgia's Open Question

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Lee DePew grew up in a military town. It's called St. Marys, Ga. It's right on the border with Florida. After high school, he joined the Marines. But when he got hurt in Desert Storm, he came back to St. Marys looking to slow things down a bit. So he switched careers and became a barber. And when he got married, his wife became a barber, too. When they had kids, their son also became a barber, and then their daughter. And a few years ago, they decided to open their own shop, Liberty Barber Shop, a family shop. And it's a busy shop. People know Lee in St. Marys, and he knows them - most of the time.

LEE DEPEW: I go to a grocery store and I'll see somebody, and they'll say, hey, Leroy (ph). How you doing? And I'll say, hey, turn around so I can know who you are.


DEPEW: Believe it or not, the back of everyone's head is different. It's like a fingerprint.

DUFFIN: But when COVID came down to Georgia, Lee's business ground to a halt. During normal times, they used to do more than a hundred haircuts a day.

DEPEW: And then it got to the point where we were doing, like, five haircuts a day, six haircuts a day. So two days before they ordered us to shut down, I voluntarily told my staff - I said, listen; we're going to shut the shop down because it's getting too - there's too many unknowns out here.

DUFFIN: Lee locked up the shop and posted on Facebook, if we can't be part of the solution, we become part of the problem. Stay well. Stay safe. See you soon. And then they waited. Wake up, pass the day, family dinner, go to bed. And a few weeks into this, at the end of another restless day, the family sat down to eat. Lee said grace, like he always does. They dove into their food, and someone flipped on the TV.


BRIAN KEMP: All right. Well, good afternoon, everyone.

DUFFIN: It was the governor of Georgia, Brian Kemp, on the screen, delivering another coronavirus update. They didn't expect to hear anything that new. The public health emergency wasn't set to expire for another three weeks.

DEPEW: So we were sitting at the dinner table...


KEMP: Last week, the White House issued guidelines for states to begin safely reopening our nation's economy.

DEPEW: ...Listening to this speech.


KEMP: We will allow gyms, fitness centers...

DEPEW: And when they said that they were opening up barbershops...


KEMP: ...Barbers, cosmetologists...

DEPEW: ...To be honest with you, I was totally shocked.


KEMP: ...To reopen their doors this Friday, April the 24.

DEPEW: And I said, OK. And I looked at my wife. I high-fived her. We were excited, and then scared to death.


DUFFIN: Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Karen Duffin. State after state has locked down what they've deemed to be nonessential businesses. And about two weeks ago, Georgia became one of the very first to start reopening them. Some people are cheering that decision. Many people are angry. A lot of people are scared. Today on the show, we take you down to Georgia, where business owners like Lee are becoming unwitting pioneers, trying to figure out, can you safely reopen a business that requires you to do the forbidden - to touch strangers all day long? And even if you can reopen, should you?

Governor Kemp declared the state of Georgia reopened in late April. But, of course, parts of it had already been open for weeks, the so-called essential businesses - things like grocery stores and gas stations, which, by the way, got deemed essential by the Department of Homeland Security. They made a list of 16 essential industries. It's nonbinding, but a lot of states, like Georgia, just copied that list. And by now, you're used to how the rules work in these essential businesses like your local grocery store. You have to wear a mask, stay 6 feet apart.

But in that press conference, the governor was saying, now I want to reopen nonessentials, including businesses where people cannot stay 6 feet apart. In fact, they have to touch each other, like in a nail salon or a barbershop. Safety in those businesses, if it is possible at all, is a whole different and much harder problem. That is how Kay Kendrick got involved.

KAY KENDRICK: They said, well, can you put together some guidelines?

DUFFIN: Kay is the chair of Georgia's Cosmetology and Barbers Licensing Board. She presides over Georgia's 95,000 cosmetologists. If you want to open a salon in Georgia, you go to Kay. If you break the rules, you also have to go to Kay, to a sort of cosmetology court. So it naturally fell to Kay to try to figure out, how do you pandemic-proof a salon or barbershop? She gathered a small team - two people from the governor's office, an infectious disease nurse, a trio of salon CEOs - and they start coming up with COVID cosmetology rules. Some things you're familiar with; everyone needs to wear a mask and gloves. Some things are new.

KENDRICK: One client per stylist in the salon, separated by 6 feet.

DUFFIN: Other rules are a little more specific, like you should change the capes between every single cut.

KENDRICK: Which means a little more washing.

DUFFIN: Ask screening questions, like have you had a fever recently? In total, they came up with 28 rules. Some are mandatory, some just recommended. And on Friday, April 17, Kay sent that list to the governor's office.

KENDRICK: And then he announced Monday for us to open that Friday, so the guidelines were only out about four days.


KENDRICK: I was really shocked that he said Friday because the stay-in-order place ends on the 30th. So I was really surprised that it was on the Friday before.

DUFFIN: Kay was not the only one who was surprised. Some of the governor's own coronavirus task force - they didn't know either. Some threatened to resign. President Trump even spoke out against it. Do not liberate Georgia - not yet. Mayors in bigger cities like Atlanta who'd been hit much harder by the virus were particularly outraged for a lot of reasons, like data had started to emerge showing that the virus is far more deadly for African Americans, and Georgia's population is nearly 32% black. Also, their testing capacity was some of the lowest in the country. There was no apparent infrastructure for widespread contact tracing. And cases had been trending up, not down.

And there are, of course, teams of scientists who try to model out the impact of locking down a state or reopening a state. And one big number they keep a close eye on is called the reproduction number.

TURGAY AYER: Reproduction number basically captures, on average, how many new infections are caused by an existing infection.

DUFFIN: This is Turgay Ayer from Georgia Tech. He's a decision scientist who helped create a COVID-19 simulator to model the impact of different interventions, along with Harvard and Mass General Hospital. And that reproduction number - what it means is, if I get sick, how many other people am I likely to infect? So, like, if I have COVID without interventions, I will likely infect about two to three people. And what these researchers are looking for, what you really, really want is for that reproduction number to drop below one.

AYER: The rule is that if you - the reproduction number is below one and if you can keep it there, the epidemic will go away - right? - because, on average, one person is infecting fewer than another person.

DUFFIN: So if the reproduction rate gets to, say, 0.9, what that means is that if 100 people have COVID, they only infect 90 people. And those 90 people only infect 81 people, and so on, downward. And as that continues to happen, you can finally manage the disease through things like contact tracing and do more local lockdowns versus locking down an entire state.

But when Governor Kemp made this decision to reopen the state, Turgay's model estimated Georgia's reproduction rate was still at 1.5. The virus was still spreading. So for a lot of people, it just didn't feel like Georgia was ready to reopen. But Governor Kemp said, look; businesses are hurting. It looks like cases will start to decline soon, and we're going to ramp up testing. It's time to do this. And so now, it was up to the cosmetologists of Georgia to decide. In four days, we can open, but should we?

JAYE CORLEY: One of my good clients, he was the first person to text it to me - that we were able to legally be open if we choose to.

DUFFIN: Jaye Corley runs Barber's Club in Marietta, Ga. And when he got the news, he was like, well, if anyone can do this safely, it's a barber.

CORLEY: We are always taking measures to make sure that our tools are sanitized, our hands are sanitized, our chairs are sanitized. It is probably one of the cleanest places - some barber shops - you know, the safest places, because we are always spraying Clippercide. That stuff kills any virus known to man so far.

DUFFIN: He also thought, well, people are so worried about safety in barbershops, but how about safety in all of those essential businesses that you've all been going to for the past month?

CORLEY: You go into the grocery store. You standing in front of, behind of. What about when you walk down the aisles? You know, you will come into more people going into one of these convenience stores than you would coming into my barbershop.

DUFFIN: And, like, who made up this list of essential and nonessential anyway?

CORLEY: Well, it's all relative, in my opinion. Like, I can live without going to the liquor store, and they were never closed. You know what I mean?

DUFFIN: Three hours to the west of Jaye and his barber shop, Taylar Prince got the news from a friend. She runs a salon in Augusta.

TAYLAR PRINCE: I was just eating dinner, and I got a text on my phone, and somebody was like, all right, so I guess salons are opening back up Friday. And I'm like, no way. We're not prepared for this. How are we supposed to get proper PPE and sanitizing agents whenever you can't find it? I mean, it's sold out at stores. You can't order it. We're not prepared to work in a pandemic, you know, being so close to people, not being able to stay 6 foot away from our client. I mean, we're right in their face. So...


PRINCE: There's just - I don't know. There's just too many unanswered questions.

DUFFIN: Taylar decided to run it by her team on FaceTime.

PRINCE: I said, OK, you know, you guys, whoever feels comfortable going back to work on Friday, raise your hand. They all looked at me like deer in headlights, to be honest with you.

DUFFIN: That was a strong no. Jaye, on the other hand, was a yes.

CORLEY: I'm going to do the best that I can and take the proper precautions that I possibly can.

DUFFIN: And Lee DePew, the Marine-turned-barber sitting at his dinner table in St. Marys watching the governor's reopening announcement, he was undecided. He knew that in a pandemic, the decision of one business does not affect just that one business. But he also knew that the previous few weeks had been very rough on him and his family.

DEPEW: Everything was OK for a while because we applied for the assistance as early as we could. And then one week went by, two week went by, three week went by - nothing - OK, four weeks. The mortgages still has to be paid, and the rent still has to be paid. The light bills are stacking up, the car payments, the gas - everything.

DUFFIN: And all the places that people are looking to right now to tide them over, for Lee, they're either not possible or are just not coming through for him. His stimulus check hasn't shown up because he didn't have direct deposit with the IRS. And as an independent contractor, which most barbers are, he can't get state unemployment. Federal is an option under the new stimulus package, but because of Georgia's system, he couldn't even apply for the federal benefits until April 20, the same day as this press conference. He did apply for a small-business loan. He asked for $25,000. He got just 4,000.

DEPEW: So we've been off now for over 30 days. And how do we divide the money up, because that's supposed to be between - I got four employees plus myself, you know? I don't know how to stretch that. We're kind of in a rock and a hard space, if you want to put it mildly.

DUFFIN: Rock and a hard place. The rock - to keep the public safe, we have to keep people at home and shut down nonessential businesses. The hard place - Lee's business has stopped, but his expenses have not. So either he goes to work to pay his bills or he stays shut down and the government covers them. But so far, they haven't - rock, hard place.

And Lee is just obsessively thinking about all of this. When he wakes up in the middle of the night, he can't sleep. He prays a little. And he's thinking, isn't there a way to have both - like, we can open and safely? He turns to Kay's 28 guidelines, and he starts getting very practical. What would a pandemic-proof barbershop look like? He's like, well, I guess when a client arrives, we could just have them stay in the car and call us and then we just go get them from their car and only the person getting a haircut can come in.

DEPEW: We'd check their temperature at the door. We'd ask them the screening questions. And there are some dotted lines that they walk to the sink, and we time them washing their hands for at least 20 seconds. And we'll put the cape on them, cut their hair. And we're wearing gloves. They're wearing a mask. We're wearing a mask. When we get around the ears, we'll ask them to hold their mask in place. When they're done with their haircut, we will clean them up, and we take them to the register, and then we walk them out the door. They never touch anything while they're in our barbershop.

DUFFIN: And after the customers leave, they can just clean everything, top to bottom.

DEPEW: I'm a former Marine, and one thing Marines have to know how to do is clean.


DEPEW: You know?

DUFFIN: You're like, I've been training for this for years.


DUFFIN: And none of this, of course, is a guarantee against such a contagious virus. But he thinks it's definitely better than a lot of what he's seen at the so-called essential businesses.

DEPEW: I feel like a person's safer coming into our barbershop than it is for them going to a grocery store or anywhere like that where they're around a bunch of people that are just touching everything and anything and there's just no way to keep certain things safe.

DUFFIN: So he calls a staff/family meeting.

DEPEW: And I told the children, it's your choice. You guys do not have to come back if you don't want to, but me and your mom have to. We have to find a way to make this work.

DUFFIN: The kids said, yes, we're in. And so the day after Governor Kemp announced the reopening, at 10:38 p.m., Lee made his own announcement on Facebook.

DEPEW: Hello and greetings, earthlings, from your fellow nonessentials. Liberty Barber Shop will be reopening this Friday. We would like to thank everyone for being patient with us. Let's talk about safety.

DUFFIN: Lee spelled out all the changes. No more walk-ins. You have to book online now. And when you get to the shop, we'll come get you at your car. We'll take your temperature. We'll ask you some questions. He runs through all the new rules.

DEPEW: So who's ready for that mullet removal?

DUFFIN: So are people - yeah, how'd people respond?

DEPEW: We booked out within six hours.


DEPEW: Yeah.

DUFFIN: Is there anyone who is not excited for you to be opening?

DEPEW: Yeah, there's those (laughter). We've had a few people say, hey, listen; y'all should stay home, you know, and blah, blah, blah. It's their - listen; if they want to stay home, they can stay home. Everybody's going to Walmarts. They're going to grocery stores.

DUFFIN: He posted that on Tuesday night, got all booked up by Wednesday, and we spoke on Thursday, less than 24 hours before he would finally reopen.

Are you scared at all?

DEPEW: I'm a Marine.

DUFFIN: That's not...

DEPEW: (Laughter) Yes, I'm scared.


DEPEW: Absolutely, I'm scared. I mean, especially if you're working with your family. I mean, my family...


DEPEW: ...Is directly there with me. My son is going to be - his wife is pregnant.

DUFFIN: Oh, wow.

DEPEW: We've gotten so many mixed emotions. But I'm confident. I'm confident that we can do a good job and keep everyone safe.

DUFFIN: I know it's hard 'cause it's like, maybe they'll be careful when they come to the barbershop, but maybe they'll go more places 'cause they went to the barbershop where they won't be as careful.

DEPEW: You know, eventually, the government's going to have to start trusting the business owners because we're on the front lines.

DUFFIN: Do you think the government should - should it be up to them or up to you to decide whether to open?

DEPEW: (Laughter) That is one of those questions that is hard to answer. Of course I want to say me. However, unfortunately, there are a lot of business owners that - they don't take all the precautions they need to take. And could another outbreak happen because of that? Yes. Yes. So in that instance, yeah, the government should be, you know, really on top of this. I would think they would need to ramp up going in and inspecting people, making sure they're doing it, you know?

DUFFIN: The government does inspect salons. However, in Georgia, they only have 12 inspectors for 13,000-plus barbershops and salons. And Lee says, well, hopefully those inspectors are out pounding the pavement, and hopefully other shops are being careful. But for him, it's just time to get back to work.

DEPEW: You know, we have to make a living. I mean, there's no if, ands and buts about it. I mean, I'm to the point where I will do - I'll go dig a ditch or wear a hazmat suit to cut hair (laughter). You know, hopefully it works. I'm praying that it works.

DUFFIN: After the break - what happens when Lee reopens his doors and what that might mean for Georgia.


DUFFIN: The day after Lee reopened, I gave him a call to hear about his first day off the couch and back in the shop.

DEPEW: Hey. How are you?

DUFFIN: Good. How are you?

DEPEW: My feet hurt.


DEPEW: I mean, I've been sitting on my butt for a month. So...

DUFFIN: Right.

DEPEW: But it felt good. I felt alive for the first time in a while. It was pretty amazing. Pretty amazing - the response we got from the community, from our customers.


DEPEW: Yeah, we turned a lot of people away today.

DUFFIN: People eventually even started showing up all the way from central Florida, where barbershops are still closed - like this guy who made a whole road trip just for a haircut.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: All right, I am at the Liberty Barber Shop up in - what city is this? St. Marys?

DEPEW: St. Marys, Ga.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: St. Marys, Ga. - beautiful place. They did a great job on me, and I feel about 10 pounds lighter. And in all of this tyranny, there's nothing like a Liberty Barber Shop cut, right?

DUFFIN: Lee said some people tried to go around the new rules. A car full of Marines showed up without an appointment or masks. He said, yeah, come back when you have both. A lot of elderly people came. They just didn't know how to make appointments online. And walk-ins just don't work right now. They could only do two haircuts an hour. They used to do four or five. And if people are even just five minutes late, he has to reschedule them because the process is much more complicated. Here's how it goes. It takes five minutes to go out to the client's car to check them in and explain the rules.

DEPEW: Hey, boss. How are you? What time's your appointment?

DUFFIN: And then, he brings them to the shop. He opens the door. And when they get in, he tells them channel your inner T-Rex.

DEPEW: Come in here like a Tyrannosaurus rex. You're not - you got small arms. You're not touching nothing, you know? I'll turn the water on for you. I'll put the soap in your hand - you wash your hands. You touch nothing.

DUFFIN: Hands washed, they head to the chair for a 15-minute haircut. And once the client leaves, 10 minutes to clean like he has never cleaned before. Someone left a comment on their Facebook page - this shop is so clean, I felt like I needed to take my shoes off. But even with all of Lee's precautions, people venturing out into a barbershop for the first time since the pandemic started were still a little jittery. Things that were once normal now seemed frightening.

DEPEW: One guy was sitting in my chair. He was like, hey, that person's got a red neck.


DEPEW: And he pointed it out to me. And I said, yes, sir, he just got a hot towel on the back of his neck. And they were - he goes, oh, OK. OK. And he was clinching his mask and he was paranoid. He was paranoid. I had paranoid people come in today.

DUFFIN: Oh, man. If anyone sneezed in your shop right now, I bet everyone...

DEPEW: I would freak out. I would freak out. I'd probably hit them with a can of Lysol.


DUFFIN: So Day 1 of reopening felt like a success. But about a week later, Lee called me from the shop at the end of another long day. And he told me that working under pandemic conditions was starting to wear on him.

DEPEW: We are absolutely exhausted. It's the hardest we've ever worked for two haircuts an hour (laughter). You know? But it's only going to be temporary because I don't think we can continue this for months and months and months and months. I don't know. When we get done at night, it's all we can do to take a shower and go to bed. And I'm going to bed tonight, you know, first of all, thanking God and, second of all, knowing that this could end tomorrow. So that's the worry that I have. The big worry that I have is not everybody is going to take the same types of precautions. And if they don't, we could do this again.

DUFFIN: We don't have solid data yet on the full impact of Georgia's reopening. Those numbers are still emerging. But just last weekend, some new numbers came out that show the impact of Georgia's lockdown - the weeks that most people stayed indoors, most businesses were shut down. According to Turgay Ayer and the Georgia Tech/Harvard/Mass General model, right before the reopening, Georgia's reproduction rate finally got down to where you really want it. It finally dipped just below 1, which is where the virus starts shrinking in the population. With a few more weeks on lockdown, Turgay said, Georgia would have been closer to really containing it. And Turgay worries that with the reopening, the reproduction rate could go back up above 1, which would mean a second wave. He is watching the numbers very closely, and so is Lee Depew.

So will you be keeping an eye on the numbers - like, the case numbers and stuff like that?

DEPEW: Yes, absolutely. And if I see a sharp rise, I'll shut it down.


DUFFIN: If you have thoughts about rocks, hard places, pandemic decision-making, please email us at We're also on social media - Instagram, Facebook, Twitter - we're @planetmoney. Today's show was produced by Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi and Autumn Barnes. Alex Goldmark is our supervising producer. Bryant Urstadt edits the show. Special thanks to Deidre Martin (ph), Dee Tyler (ph) and Turgay Ayer's colleagues at Harvard and Mass General who run the COVID-19 simulator. Also, thanks to Emma Hurt and Lisa Hagen from WABE in Atlanta. We'll post a link to the COVID-19 simulator that we talked about in this episode on the webpage for this show. Check it out if you want to see the data for your state. If you like this show, maybe your friends would, too. Share it with them. I'm Karen Duffin. This is NPR. Thanks for listening.

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