ATLANTA — Vice President Mike Pence on Friday praised Gov. Brian Kemp and Georgia restaurant owners who have reopened their establishments in recent weeks, lending a high-level of support to state leaders who have been criticized for ending pandemic restrictions too soon.

Pence said Georgia is setting “an example to the nation” by being among the first and most aggressive to restart its economy while staying mindful of public health guidelines.

“In a very real sense, I think history will record that Georgia helped lead the way back to a prosperous American economy,” Pence told reporters after a barbecue lunch with the governor and first lady Marty Kemp at Star Cafe near Atlanta’s Westside.

Pence’s comments made clear the White House was supportive of Kemp’s decision-making, even though President Donald Trump strongly criticized the governor a month ago for rolling back coronavirus restrictions. The rebuke stunned Kemp’s aides because, hours earlier, Trump and Pence had separately voiced support for the plans to let some shuttered businesses, such as barber shops and tattoo parlors, reopen if they follow guidelines.

Kemp on Friday sidestepped a question about whether he felt vindicated by the turn of events and emphasized his support for the administration.

“I’m just very excited the vice president was here. I appreciate the support of the president and him,” Kemp said.

The governor touted the Trump administration’s efforts to help Georgia secure personal protective equipment and remdesivir, an anti-viral drug that’s shown promise for treating patients with severe symptoms of COVID-19. He indicated the recent sharp drop in hospitalization rates was a sign his approach is working and said that he’d “let history be the judge of what ends up being right and wrong” regarding his coronavirus decision making.

After dining on meatloaf, pulled pork and sweet tea with the Kemps, Pence spoke with local restaurant owners at a socially distanced roundtable at Waffle House’s corporate headquarters in Norcross.

The vice president praised those who have begun rehiring employees and opening up their kitchens, as well as H Restaurant Group CEO and co-owner Joseph Hsiao, who said he took out a line of credit on his home to help make payroll at his half-dozen metro Atlanta restaurants.

Kemp’s executive order allowed restaurants to reopen dining rooms starting in late April, as long as they follow dozens of safety regulations.

“This isn’t really a choice between the health of our citizens and a growing economy,” said Pence. “It’s a choice between health and health, because a growing economy, which you’re beginning to see come back here in Georgia, contributes to the physical and emotional well-being of the American people.”

The state’s Democratic leaders were critical of that mentality in a virtual news conference ahead of Pence’s late morning arrival at Dobbins Air Reserve Base.

Trump, Pence and Kemp “at every turn have contradicted public health experts, and put big corporations ahead of our working families,” said state Sen. Nikema Williams, the chairwoman of the Democratic Party of Georgia. “These men are full of nothing but lies and broken promises — and this crisis has been made so much worse because they are in power.”

Presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden’s campaign said the pandemic has exposed systemic “racial inequities” plaguing Georgia that he plans to address if elected.

“Right now, Georgians need decisive actions from transparent and empathetic leaders, but instead today they will get a photo-op,” said Symone Sanders, a Biden senior strategist.

Pence’s visit drew dozens of supporters, who stood outside of Star Cafe and Waffle House headquarters, waving signs and chanting “four more years.”

His motorcade — which slowed traffic along I-75, even though far fewer were on the roads compared to a normal Memorial Day weekend — made a previously unannounced stop at Ravi Zacharias’ ministry near Alpharetta. The evangelist died Tuesday. An aide said the two men were close.

Friday’s events also provided a dash of political theater. Pence was accompanied on Air Force Two by U.S. Sen Kelly Loeffler, R-Ga., who’s facing fierce competition for her seat this fall. They were met on the tarmac by Rep. Doug Collins, R-Ga., Loeffler’s bitter political rival. The two spoke and shook hands as Pence slowly greeted other elected officials there.

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(Staff writer Greg Bluestein contributed to this report.)

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©2020 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Atlanta, Ga.)

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