Vice President Mike Pence on Friday praised Georgia’s decision to quickly reopen businesses during the coronavirus outbreak during a visit to the state that included lunch with the governor at an Atlanta café that had resumed dine-in service.
“We just went out to lunch and had a great meal, and we were able to do that because of what the people of Georgia have done,” Pence said at a discussion later in the day with restaurant owners and Gov. Brian Kemp.
He said Georgia was “leading the way” in reopening and called Kemp’s leadership “clear and courageous and principled.”
The words were a marked departure from the criticism Kemp faced from President Donald Trump after Kemp announced in April he planned to allow salons, restaurants, gyms and other businesses to reopen later that month. Georgia was one of the first states to allow businesses to start up again during the pandemic.
Trump initially told Kemp he supported the move, but then said publicly he strongly disagreed with it and wasn’t happy with Kemp.
The Republican governor has insisted the move was guided by data and state public health officials, but it ran counter to the advice of many experts, who warned that resuming business too soon risked a fresh spike in infections.
Kemp returned Pence’s praise Friday, thanking him and Trump for the “level of communication” they’ve had with governors about the virus. Kemp walked into the meeting with restaurant owners without a mask, and many people in the crowd were not wearing them. The meeting was held at the headquarters of Waffle House, a popular Southern eatery.
Waffle House CEO Walt Ehmer said Kemp had the “courage” to lead the state out of the lockdown.
Waffle House resumed dine-in service at the vast majority of its restaurants in Georgia on April 27 — the first day Kemp allowed that. The chain is known for hash brown breakfasts and its ability to stay open in the face of natural disasters.
At a Waffle House near the company’s headquarters Friday, every other booth was closed and most chairs at the counter were off limits. Servers and cooks wore masks, but inevitably ended up congregating close together behind the counter.
A Vietnamese restaurant and Latin restaurant in a neighboring strip mall were also open for dine-in service, but a wing shop remained closed because of the virus. A note on the door said management was hoping to reopen in two weeks but could not guarantee that due to “constantly changing news and numbers of coronavirus cases and deaths.”
Georgia has had more than 41,000 confirmed cases of the virus, which has claimed nearly 1,800 lives in the state, according to the state Department of Public Health.
Ehmer said Waffle House has rehired 2,000 workers, and its revenues have substantially recovered since resuming dine-in service.
“We appreciate the opportunity to begin to find a path forward,” he said.