March12, 2020 Atlanta - Gov. Brian Kemp speaks during a press conference to provide an update on the state's efforts regarding COVID-19, after reporting the first death in Georgia related to coronavirus, at the Georgia State Capitol on Thursday, March 11, 2020. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Photo: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Photo: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Kemp bans many gatherings, orders shelter in place for ‘medically fragile’ in Georgia

Gov. Brian Kemp announced a series of measures Monday to try to curb the spread of coronavirus, instituting a ban on many gatherings of more than 10 people and ordering a shelter in place for “medically fragile” residents for two weeks. 

Facing increasing pressure to impose stiffer restrictions, Kemp also ordered the shutdown of bars and nightclubs across the state and gave the Department of Public Health authority to close businesses or nonprofits – including churches – that don’t comply with the rules.

His order bans all gatherings of more than 10 people unless they can assure spacing of “at least six feet between people at all times.” Grocery stores and other businesses that can maintain social distancing will remain open. 

“We are all part of the solution. If your friends, neighbors or local organizations are not complying, call them out. Or report them to us,” said Kemp. “If any establishment isn’t following these directives, I’d ask you to take your business somewhere else.”

The shelter in place applies to people living in long-term care facilities, those exposed to the virus or residents with compromised immune systems from Tuesday to April 6. He also postponed the deadline to file Georgia taxes to July 15. 

“This fight is far from over, but we are in this fight together,” said Kemp. “Look out for your fellow Georgians and pray for their continued safety, as well as the safety of our first responders, healthcare workers, the elderly and the medically fragile.”

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For days, the Republican has been pilloried for his refusal to use emergency powers to impose restrictions, which has led to a patchwork of local regulations that public health experts warn could undermine Georgia’s effort to contain the disease. 

The governor has previously said he fears any “overreach” would backfire if he moved too quickly. The restrictions he announced Monday don’t go as far as some, including lawmakers and public health experts, who sought a broader shutdown. 

His reluctance stands in contrast to dozens of other governors, as well as a growing number of Georgia municipal and county leaders, who have imposed steep restrictions meant to stem the spread of the disease.

10/07/2019 — Atlanta, Georgia — Atlanta Police Chief Erika Shields (left) listens as Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms speaks during a presser at the Atlanta Public Safety Headquarters, Monday, October 7, 2019. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal Constitution)
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

At least 37 other states have enacted statewide limits on gatherings, and 36 states have restricted restaurants and other businesses, according to the National Governors Association. Those restrictions span most Southern states. 

And local officials around the state prepared more decisive steps. Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms readied a shelter in place order she said she’s likely to sign later Monday, and DeKalb County imposed a “voluntary curfew.”

The calls for Kemp to force closures and restrict events have grown more insistent as the number of coronavirus cases rises. The disease has infected at least 772 Georgians, including four state senators, and is linked to 25 deaths. 

"This is a non-partisan issue - this virus sees no color or political affiliations, it doesn’t care about status or economic positioning,” top House Democratic leaders wrote Kemp on Monday, urging him to be more “proactive in the fight against this ‘invisible enemy.’”

They’re joined by a growing number of Republicans. House Speaker David Ralston became one of the state’s first GOP leaders to advocate for a shelter-in-place order Monday as the state rapidly reaches what he called a “tipping point.”

“I would support Governor Kemp if he chooses to issue an order requiring non-essential workers to remain home for another 10 days, two weeks, to see if we can flatten this curve a little bit,” he told a local media outlet, Fetch Your News

Ralston added: “If we over-react, thank God we overreact.” 

Here are some more details about the latest developments:

How does Kemp define “medically fragile” residents?

"At minimum, this order for isolation, quarantine, or shelter in place covers those who live in a long-term care facility, have chronic lung disease, are undergoing cancer treatment, have a positive COVID-19 test, are suspected to have COVID-19 because of their symptoms and exposure, or have been exposed to someone who has COVID-19.

What is the extent of the ban on gatherings? Does it mean groceries are closed? 

No. The order closes all bars and nightclubs, and it will ban all gatherings of ten or more people unless “you can maintain at least six feet between people at all times.” That means businesses that can enforce social distancing can remain open.

What is the status of Georgia’s supply of life-saving medical equipment?

The state distributed about 268,000 N95 surgical masks to all 142 hospitals over the weekend, and 30 ventilators to the hard-hit counties of Dougherty and Floyd. 

All told, Georgia has shipped out 532,170 N95 masks, 65,640 face shields, 640,600 surgical masks, 46,740 surgical gowns, 635,000 gloves, and 64 pallets of general hospital supplies since early March. Federal authorities say a new supply of the goods will arrive within five days. 

What is Georgia doing to boost medical space? 

The state has completed construction of an “isolation zone” at the Georgia Public Safety Training Center in Forsyth to hold as many as 20 emergency housing units. The campus also offers up to 242 dorm rooms for a patient surge. 

In Dougherty County, emergency management officials are working to reopen Phoebe North, which is currently closed but will offer at least 26 rooms for patients. Another facility with roughly 60 beds could also be opened soon in Albany. 

And Kemp has asked President Donald Trump to keep intact the temporary medical facility at Dobbins Air Reserve Base, which offers roughly 200 patient beds if needed. 

The state is also exploring projects with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for arena space and large buildings, as well as converting vacant and under-utilized properties to makeshift hospitals.

Kemp said the first team of Georgia National Guard troops will also soon embed with the Grady Health System for training. 

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About the Author

Greg Bluestein
Greg Bluestein
Greg Bluestein is a political reporter who covers the governor's office and state politics for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
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