A tale of two states: The impact the COVID-19 shutdown has had with 2 very different responses

ATLANTA — As the daily number of COVID-19 cases has gone up and down throughout the past year, Georgia’s “open for business” mentality has stood out across the country, especially when it comes to bars and restaurants.

But in other states, it’s a very different story. In Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, crippling lockdowns that have been going on for a year now are having a devastating impact on that area.

Here in Georgia, reopening the state early from the COVID-19 shutdowns has led to a lot of economic success, but there are trouble areas.

Mauro Cruz was scared last April amid the nationwide pandemic. He soon found himself laid off and without another construction job to turn to.

“I was like, I’m going to have to do something. You know? I got three kids,” Cruz said.

Today, he’s a business owner. Cruz told Channel 2′s Matt Johnson that he and his business partner opened Chef Smokey’s in Austell on Tuesday, taking advantage of an above-average Georgia economy.

“When this COVID thing hit, I was, like, I think it’s my time to do this,” Cruz said.

Last April, Georgia became one of the first states in the country to allow businesses to reopen as long as they followed state health guidelines.

Eleven months later, the US economy is down 6% by an employment metric, according to Georgia State University’s economic forecasting center.

But Georgia is doing better.

“We are only 2% below our old norm. So, by that definition, we are doing better than the nation,” said Georgia State University professor Rajeev Dhawan.

Dhawan said Georgia’s recovery benefited from a brief shutdown. He told Johnson that consumer spending is also up in the state, but a full recovery is tied to a successful vaccine rollout.

“People are buying online, but what needs to happen is the companies have to come back to normalcy,” Dhawan said.

TRENDING STORIES:

State data shows state sales tax revenue from January 2021 is up 9% compared to January 2020.

In a state like Pennsylvania, where more restrictions have been placed on residents, sales tax revenue for January 2021 is flat.

But have fewer restrictions come at the expense of having more cases?

“The mask mandates and the lack thereof has certainly led Georgia to experience a couple of big peaks,” said T.J. Muehleman, who runs the COVID Mapping Project, which tracks pandemic trends across the country.

He said Georgia’s summer surge in cases was not happening in most other states.

The state ranks 6th in the country with more than 821,000 confirmed cases.

“Pennsylvania is a state of about 2 million more people than Georgia — 2.2 million more people. And they have fewer cases,” Muehleman said.

In Atlanta, murders are up 80% compared to this point last year. Shootings are up 32%.

Atlanta police leadership stated one of the factors is open nightclubs attracting suspects from out of the metro and out of the state.

“Atlanta nightlife has always been popular. And you know, but again, we have seen an influx of people coming to these establishments. And as a result, we’ve had some significant incidents as well,” Atlanta police Deputy Chief Charles Hampton said.

For now, COVID-19 cases in Georgia are on the decline, and hope is on the rise.

Business is picking up at A Mano in northeast Atlanta, so it’s opening a new southwest Atlanta location next year.

“And we can continue to serve people and remain safe and find a way to profitability at the same time,” said George DeMeglio with A Mano.

That’s not the case in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Amy Hudak with our sister station, WPXI-TV, said a combination of stay-at-home orders, mask mandates and a mountain of restrictions from the state has crippled many businesses.

Some businesses told Hudak the orders were so tyrannical they didn’t give them a fighting chance.

A year after the pandemic hit the Pittsburgh metro, city streets remain empty and nearly 24,000 Pennsylvanian lives have been lost. The economy — crippled.

“You can’t lock down 13 million Pennsylvanians,” said attorney Tom King.

It started in March with a stay-at-home order. And it worked. Pennsylvania was a model state, seeing a drastic drop in COVID-19 cases.

By May, the state slowly started to reopen with businesses following strict guidelines.

Over the next six months, restrictions were tightened, loosened and tightened again as COVID-19 cases rose and fell.

“It’s not a pin pong ball or on-off switch. We can’t deal with do this, do that, do this, do that,” business owner Kimberly Waigand told Hudak. “A lot of businesses can’t take a hit repeatedly like that.”

When the holiday surge hit, the hatches were battened down. Some businesses started waging war against the state, organizing protests, defying orders and staying open.

“This is the only source of income that I have,” said Joe Joseph with P.R.E.P. Training and Fitness. “The point is to fight back against the tyranny — that is the point of all of this.”

Business owners were risking everything to save their livelihoods.

“Hermitage police showed up in full force with the chief and DA to issue me two summery citations,” Joseph said.

Four counties surrounding Pittsburgh even teamed up to sue the state.

“You can’t treat people that way, and you can’t pick winners and losers in businesses who you’re going to shut down,” King said.

Up until Monday, people couldn’t travel out of the state without quarantining. Nearly a year later, gyms, salons, restaurants, major venues and even outdoor spaces are still capped at a percentage of their capacities.

With more than 23,000 deaths and more than 750,000 COVID-19 cases in the state, many of Pennsylvania’s communities are changed. And for many, hope is lost.

Knowing that an open state like Georgia is enjoying a reduction in cases, it begs the question: Were the strict mitigation orders necessary?

“In many places, and California is an example of this, they had one of the most strict stay-at-home orders with the most businesses shuttered. Yet, had one of the worst experiences in the pandemic,” said Dr. Amesh Adalja, infectious disease doctor for Johns Hopkins University. “What that illustrates is when you do public health, it has to be targeted, it has to be based on the data on how people are being infected.”

“I do think when you have an overly blanket restriction, you will drive behavior underground essentially,” Adalja said. “I think after this pandemic is over, it will be really useful to compare places like Florida and Georgia and compare them to places like California and Pennsylvania and see what did they get with this?”

As for now, things are looking up. The trends are moving in Pennsylvania’s favor.

At one point, Pennsylvania had over 12,000 COVID-19 cases a day. The past week, the state averaged roughly 2,700 cases a day.