Gov. Brian Kemp extended Georgia's shelter in place order through the end of April and imposed new restrictions on senior care facilities Wednesday as he faced criticism from local officials who urged him to take more drastic steps to contain the coronavirus outbreak.
The governor extended the stay at home orders hours after he renewed a public health emergency declaration that grants him unprecedented authority to curb the pandemic. He said it gives him the "tools we're going to need" to combat the highly contagious disease.
“While I’m encouraged by some of the recent data, we still have incredible challenges before us,” he said of the growing outbreak, which has sickened nearly 10,000 Georgians and killed more than 300.
Kemp also instituted new restrictions on senior care facilities, which have suffered disproportionately from a virus that preys on the elderly and people with chronic illnesses. Cases of the disease have been reported in at least 58 senior care facilities around the state.
A new executive order requires senior care facilities to take more steps to prevent the spread of the virus, including banning most visitors and requiring in-room dining services. It also mandates the screening of residents for symptoms of the disease, such as fevers and respiratory issues.
A separate order activated an additional 1,000 National Guard members, and he limited most short-term vacation rentals starting Thursday to prevent Georgia from becoming a "vacation destination" during the pandemic.
The governor also announced a new partnership with Ipsum Diagnostics, the Sandy Springs-based firm, to carry out thousands of additional tests each week.
And he and his top health adviser, Dr. Kathleen Toomey, addressed the donation of 200,000 doses of hydroxychloroquine sulfate, an anti-malarial drug that President Donald Trump has aggressively promoted to fight COVID-19 even though it has yet to be proven safe for that use.
Toomey, the commissioner of the state public health department, said she’s concerned that the influx of interest in the drug will make it harder for patients with rheumatoid arthritis and other diseases to access the medication.
“My plea to physicians is always please ensure that we have an adequate supply of these drugs,” she said.
The governor has faced sharp criticism from some lawmakers who say the shelter in place mandate, which rolled back local restrictions that went beyond his statewide orders, was too porous to effectively stem the spread of the disease.
Officials along Georgia's coast were infuriated by Kemp's decision to reopen beaches that were recently shut down the seashore to help limit the pandemic. And a dozen county commissioners across north Georgia urged him to lock down state parks crowded with an influx of visitors.
"Our communities simply do not have enough hospital beds or medical personnel to care for the inflated population," the commissioners wrote. "Similarly, there is not enough food, dry goods, fuel and other supplies to adequately provide for the numbers we are experiencing."
Faced with mounting pushback, Kemp assigned state troopers to break up large gatherings and ensure that visitors keep six feet apart along Georgia’s beaches. He and his allies have also emphasized the need for exercise and fresh air amid the lockdown.
“Georgia – go to the beach, lake or a state park!” said Tim Fleming, the governor’s chief of staff, in a Facebook post late Saturday. “They are all open and despite what the media is reporting there have been no issues on Georgia beaches or lakes today.”
At his press briefing on Wednesday, Kemp said he’s willing to take specific steps to shut down beaches or state parks if “something gets out of control.” But he said there’s little evidence of that now.
The governor also expressed cautious optimism that extreme social distancing measures will help contain the spread of the disease, though he said there’s no telling when he might begin to lift those restrictions.
“I don’t want Georgians to take their foot off the gas,” he said. “But there’s no question what we are doing is working.”