WOODSTOCK — Gov. Brian Kemp told members of the Cherokee County Chamber of Commerce Wednesday he’s making it a priority to get people back in the workforce in Georgia.

“Number one on my mind, besides gas...that's getting people back in the workforce, and I'll promise you, we are focused on that,” he said at the chamber's annual meeting at First Baptist Church of Woodstock.

Georgia will end participation in federal pandemic unemployment programs, effective June 26, Kemp's office announced Thursday. After that, the Georgia Department of Labor will only offer regular state unemployment insurance benefits to eligible residents. The maximum weekly benefit in the state is $365.

Kemp praised the Cherokee Office of Economic Development’s Be Pro Be Proud initiative to get more workers in technical skills industries, crediting it with allowing “countless Georgians to find jobs and training.” He also credited chambers of commerce like Cherokee’s with supporting businesses through the pandemic.

“Thanks to that resolve by the business community, we have seen unprecedented success,” he said. “You understand that a livelihood is (as) important as fighting the virus. And we have to do both things.”

The governor also touted the $27.2 billion state budget he signed Tuesday, which he said increases the standard deduction for Georgians without adding new cuts, and a bill he signed Friday that protects police budgets. He also praised the state’s recent voter law which he said ensures Georgia has “secure, accessible, fair elections” despite controversy about several aspects of the bill.

Kemp reflected on the early days of the pandemic, which he said were “some of the toughest in my life,” and said he understood the struggle of many Georgians whose jobs were lost to the economic fallout.

“Marty and I sat home on Friday night, barely able to pay the people we were working at the time, unable to pay some of our suppliers and wondering like, are we going to get through this?” he said.

Kemp was optimistic on the fight against the coronavirus: Tuesday, the state reported the lowest COVID-19 hospitalizations and new cases since June, he said.

“We are on our way,” he said. “We are resilient people, resilient people in the state. I'm so proud of how everybody pulled together even when there was pandemic politics going on, a lot of criticizing by some that were Monday morning quarterbacking from their basement, or people that didn't live in the state of Georgia that were telling us how to do things down here.”

The governor added he’s working to educate people about the benefits of getting a COVID-19 vaccine.

“Don't listen to somebody from the government,” the governor said, as some audience members laughed. “There's so much misinformation coming from the government. It is frustrating for me, for someone who has actually really worked and followed the data that we have in Georgia, followed the advice of Dr. Toomey, but then to have different messages coming out of Washington, DC and other places...But I will tell people, call your doctor, call your pharmacist, call your faith leader, your boss, whoever you trust, your family, and just talk to them about that issue, make a good educated decision, because that is our path back to normal.”

Finally, the governor asked people to be patient in the wake of the Colonial Pipeline shutdown, which has seen increased demand and gas shortages across the Southeast. Colonial began restarting its operations Wednesday afternoon, though company officials said it would be several days before service was fully restored.

“Do not take your grocery bag to the gas pump and try to fill it up,” he said.

Incoming County Manager Geoff Morton said Kemp’s remarks were “inspiring.”

“Coming from a small business background, I think it was appropriate to have him as a speaker. It was good to hear from the state too, with the year we’ve had with COVID,” he said.

Erin Honea, economic development director for the city of Holly Springs, said she enjoyed seeing her friends at the chamber meeting and hearing from Kemp.

“Celebrating the hard work of so many deserving community members and businesses was such a pleasure. I also enjoyed getting to hear Governor Kemp’s insight on the state’s COVID-19 pandemic response and well as the Colonial pipeline shutdown,” she said.

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Shannon Ballew is the managing editor at the Cherokee Tribune and the Cherokee Ledger-News. She is a graduate of Young Harris College and lives in unincorporated Woodstock.

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