(Adds jobless background; political context; revises case and death tallies)
By Rich McKay
ATLANTA, April 24 (Reuters) - With the U.S. coronavirus death toll topping 51,000 and nearly one in six workers out of a job, Georgia, Oklahoma and several other states took tentative steps at reopening businesses on Friday, despite disapproval from President Donald Trump and medical experts.
Fitness clubs, hair salons, tattoo parlors and some other workplaces were allowed to open their doors by Georgia Governor Brian Kemp, disregarding warnings from public health officials that easing restrictions too soon could lead to more infections and deaths.
Georgia, one of several states in the Deep South that waited until early April to mandate restrictions imposed weeks before across much of the rest of the country to curb the outbreak, has become a flashpoint in the debate over how and when the nation should return to work.
While the COVID-19 illness is killing thousands of Americans daily, stay-at-home orders and business closures have thrown more than 26 million people out of work, a level of unemployment not seen since the Great Depression of the 1930s.
"We've been hurting real bad," said Lester Crowell, co-owner and manager of the Three-13 hair salon in suburban Atlanta, which reopened after 33 days. "I had to dip into my own bank account to keep the lights on here."
A dozen customers lined up outside the salon, each standing 6 feet apart. Before they could enter, staff members took their temperatures and asked if anyone had a cough, a recent fever or a housemate who had been sick or quarantined.
Despite the lost revenue, not all eligible merchants in Georgia jumped at the chance to resume business. Shay Cannon, owner of Liberty Tattoo in Atlanta, said he would reopen in May by appointment only and did not foresee a return to normal until June or later.
"We're just watching the numbers and doing what seems right to us," Cannon told Reuters.
The U.S. death toll from COVID-19, the highest in the world, surpassed 51,000 on Friday, having doubled in 10 days, according to a Reuters tally, and the number of Americans known to be infected surpassed 900,000.
OTHER STATES REOPENING
Georgia was not alone in reopening.
Oklahoma was permitting some retailers to resume business on Friday, Florida began reopening its beaches a week ago, South Carolina started easing restrictions on Monday, and other states will follow suit next week.
Trump, who had staked his November re-election on the nation's booming economy before the pandemic, has given mixed signals about when and how the country should begin to get back to work.
Last Friday, a day after the White House issued federal guidelines urging a gradual, cautious approach advocated by health experts, he called for several Democratic governors to "liberate" their states from economic restrictions. But in a reversal this week, he publicly criticized fellow Republican Kemp's moves to reopen Georgia.
Late on Thursday, Trump sparked fresh confusion over prospects for COVID-19 treatments, suggesting scientists should investigate whether patients might be cured by ingesting disinfectants or being bathed in ultraviolet light.
The comments prompted doctors, health experts and manufacturers of bleach to warn the public not to drink or inject disinfectant. On Friday, Trump said his remarks were meant as sarcasm.
U.S. Representative Doug Collins, a Georgia Republican, said restarting commerce on Friday was sending mixed messages.
"Everyone's supposed to be staying home, but yet we're opening up these businesses," Collins told Fox News. He cited the guidelines calling for states to register a two-week decline in coronavirus cases before easing restrictions, and said parts of Georgia were still struggling to treat patients.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, whose state has been the worst hit by the virus, said reopening the economy prematurely in any U.S. state was a danger to others.
According to a University of Washington research model often cited by the White House, coronavirus hospitalizations in Georgia should peak next week.
Oklahoma, with far fewer cases and deaths than Georgia, began opening hair and nail salons and other personal care businesses on Friday. The University of Washington model predicts Oklahoma already hit its hospitalizations peak on Tuesday and could safely loosen restrictions in June.
Tennessee reopened most of its 56 state parks on Friday.
Texas on Friday began a "retail-to-go" phase of its reopening, allowing retail shops to either deliver products to homes or letting customers wait in cars in parking lots for purchases to be handed them by store workers.
In practice, many Texas merchants have been doing this for weeks or stayed open outright, as Republican Governor Greg Abbott had classified much of the state's retail economy, including big-box stores, bike shops, dry cleaners and farmers markets, as essential businesses.
In the latest protest against the shutdowns, hundreds of people gathered on Friday outside the Wisconsin state Capitol building in Madison calling for Democratic Governor Tony Evers to reopen the state, even as it reported its largest single-day jump of new coronavirus cases.
"Stand strong, be united and stand tall and proud for America," said one of the protesters through a bullhorn. Many in the crowd wore Trump hats, waved American flags and carried "Go Back To Work" signs.
There was also a quiet counter-protest - a woman standing by a tree wearing a face mask, a bottle of hand sanitizer on her hip, holding a sign that said, "Please Go Home."
(Reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta, Nathan Layne in Wilton, Connecticut, Susan Heavey and Jeff Mason in Washington, Brad Brookes in Austin, Shannon Stapleton in Madison and Jessica Resnick-Ault in New York; Writing by Nathan Layne and Alistair Bell; Editing by Frank McGurty, Howard Goller and Daniel Wallis)
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