These southern states could endure thousands of preventable COVID-19 deaths by reopening too soon: new analysis
Tara Brandua (center, with rifle), organizer of a rally for a Robert E. Lee monument in Richmond, Virginia, at CSA II: The New Confederate States of America's August rally in Georgia.

Alarming new models show Gov. Brian Kemp could doom thousands of lives by lifting Georgia's coronavirus lockdown in the coming days.

Governors across the U.S. are beginning to relax social distancing restrictions despite more than 56,000 deaths in six weeks, but Kemp's new guidelines are perhaps the most aggressive -- and potentially lethal, according to models prepared by epidemiologists and computer scientists at Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and published by The Daily Beast.

Kemp's orders allowed fitness centers, bowling alleys, tattoo and massage shops, and hair salons to reopen Friday, while restaurants and theaters opened Monday and the shelter-in-place order will expire Thursday.

The new models found those policies will put Georgia at spectacular risk, The Daily Beast warned.

At least 871 people statewide have already died from COVID-19, but the models projected that more than 4,200 could die if approved businesses returned to 50 percent of their pre-pandemic activity -- and that number could jump to more than 9,700 fatalities if they returned to 100 percent activity.

By contrast, deaths would not likely have exceeded 3,000 in Georgia by June 15 if Kemp had maintained its social distancing guidelines, according to the researchers.

“What we find, no matter what we assume, is that reopening on Monday was just too early,” said Jackson Killian, a Ph.D. student at Harvard’s John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. “If you let people go out and have contact again now, you end up causing deaths that could have been avoided.”

Another model, developed by researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology’s School of Industrial and Systems Engineering, found the state could endure up to 20,000 coronavirus deaths by Aug. 30 if no restrictions at all remain in place to halt the outbreak.

“Once we start to see a second spike in infections in late July and early August, the policymakers will put some of these social distancing measurements back in place,” said Turgay Ayer, an associate professor at Georgia Institute of Technology. “If you lift the restriction too soon, a second wave will come, and the damage will be substantial both medically and economically. We don’t want to throw away the sacrifices we have made for weeks now.”

The Harvard and MIT modelers found similarly alarming results when they looked at Florida and Mississippi, two other southern states that were considering an aggressive schedule for reopening.

Florida has endured 987 deaths from coronavirus as of Friday, but the models warned that more than 4,100 could die if Gov. Ron DeSantis eased guidelines this week, as Kemp has in Georgia -- and as many as 15,500 could die if Florida immediately returned to pre-pandemic activity.

Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves is keeping gyms, salons and theaters mostly closed but allowing retail stores to reopen at 50 percent capacity, despite 201 COVID-19 deaths in the state so far.

The modelers found than up to 640 could have died by June 15 if Reeves had loosened his shelter-in-place order right away, as he had considered, and they warned that more than 3,400 could have died if the governor had followed Kemp's lead.