Gov. Brian Kemp on Wednesday said he is preparing a statewide shelter-in-place order across Georgia to try to curb the spread of the coronavirus, a turnabout after weeks of balking at taking more drastic steps to combat the pandemic.
The new rules, which he will issue Thursday, are set to run from Friday through April 13. He also said he would immediately sign an order that would close k-12 schools through the rest of the academic year.
The Republican faced mounting pressure from public health officials, local leaders and prominent politicians who warned that a failure to take more sweeping action would further strain Georgia’s health care system and lead to more deaths.
“I want to encourage my fellow Georgians to hang in there. I know you’re tired of this,” he said at a windy press conference outside the state Capitol. “But we must first overcome the obstacles in our path.”
Kemp had balked at more stringent restrictions to combat COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, in part because he was worried more severe bans would cripple the economy in parts of the state where there are few known cases of the illness.
But he reversed course Wednesday as a growing number of other Republican governors, including the leaders of Florida, South Carolina and Texas, instituted broader limits on mobility and shuttered more businesses to try to counter the disease.
He said his decision was triggered by "game-changing” new projections on the disease’s spread in Georgia. He also said he was informed of new data that this virus “is now transmitting before people see signs.”
“Those individuals could have been infecting people before they ever felt” symptoms, he said. “We didn’t know that until the last 24 hours.”
Health officials have long known that the virus could be transmitted this way, though the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently changed their guidance on this type of asymptomatic infection.
That contributed to significant changes in state projections on testing, hospital capacity and virus transmission rates that led Dr. Kathleen Toomey, the head of Georgia’s Department of Public Health, to endorse more severe restrictions.
“It’s a combination of recognizing there’s a large number of people out there who are infected, who are asymptomatic, who never would have been recognized under our old models,” she said, “but also seeing the community transmission that we’re seeing.”
‘All over the place’
Kemp said the shelter-in-place order comes with exceptions including grocery stores, medical suppliers and certain manufacturing. Kemp aides say it’s likely to allow restaurants to serve takeout but ban dine-in service.
“People have to eat. We have to continue to process our food supply. We have to have our pharmacies open, we have to have Georgia-based companies that are making (personal protective equipment for doctors, nurses and other caregivers), medical supplies,” he said. “These are hard things to figure out.”
The governor said law enforcement would actively require residents to comply with the restrictions, though he urged Georgians not to panic and make a run on stores.
“The grocers are ready for this. They’ll be ready to restock,” he said. “People don’t need to be worried about buying for two weeks or two months.”
The governor earlier shut down bars, banned many gatherings, canceled public school through late April and urged the “medically fragile” and others vulnerable to the disease to stay at home.
But he expressed concern at taking more sweeping steps, such as a mandatory shelter-in-place order, in part because he worried they could cripple the economy in areas where there are no confirmed cases of the virus.
Instead, he’s given local leaders leeway to take steps on their own, and dozens of cities and counties have enacted curfews, shuttered nonessential businesses and issued shelter-in-place orders.
That's led to a hodgepodge of uneven restrictions across the state that morph by the day, along with rising criticism from local officials that stricter uniformity is needed.
And his top aide fanned more confusion over the weekend by warning of an "overreach" by local officials.
Kemp’s announcement was preceded by sharpening criticism from local officials.
Savannah Mayor Van Johnson said "cities need some consistency – because right now, we're all over the place." And state Sen. Nikema Williams, the chairwoman of the Democratic Party of Georgia, accused Kemp of taking half-measures.
“We are in a crisis, our governor is dragging his feet and playing catch-up when millions of lives are at stake,” said Williams, who revealed last week that she tested positive for COVID-19.
The new shelter-in-place rules were greeted with guarded relief by his critics.
"Better late than never," said state Rep. Scott Holcomb, D-Atlanta. "Crises demand big and fast responses. Instead, we've had nothing but incrementalism. That means it's going to take longer and longer to move past this."