Georgia lawmakers grant Kemp vast new powers to combat coronavirus

‘We must act, and we must act today.’
Georgia Rep. Donna McLeod, D - Lawrenceville, takes a photo of the final vote on the House resolution while wearing gloves during a special called session at the Georgia State Capitol Building, Monday, March 16, 2020. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

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Georgia Rep. Donna McLeod, D - Lawrenceville, takes a photo of the final vote on the House resolution while wearing gloves during a special called session at the Georgia State Capitol Building, Monday, March 16, 2020. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Georgia lawmakers voted Monday to grant Gov. Brian Kemp broad new authorities to respond to the coronavirus pandemic, ratifying his declaration of a public health emergency.

The vote gives his administration the ability to suspend state laws, take “direct” control of civil staffers, restrict travel and limit public gatherings through mid-April.

It's the first time in state history a governor has issued such an emergency declaration, and Kemp said it was essential to have "all available resources" available to respond to an outbreak that's already sickened at least 121 Georgians and killed one.

It was ratified unanimously in the Georgia Senate and by an overwhelming vote in the Georgia House during a special session that lasted five or six hours longer than expected, after emotional calls urging legislators to demonstrate unity at a moment of crisis.

"Unfortunately, the only way to know if we're overreacting is to not do anything and see where this disease takes us," said Senate Majority Leader Mike Dugan, R-Carrollton.

“Is it important? Yes. Is it critical? Yes,” Dugan said. “Is it dire? Not if we pass this and get in front of it.”

In the House, Democratic state Rep. Calvin Smyre delivered the morning prayer before a rapt audience, pleading for resolve at a volatile moment.

“We are in uncertain times. This is a time for us to speak with one voice. To act with one heart,” said Smyre, the longest-serving lawmaker in the Legislature. “We must act, and we must act today.”

Credit: Bob Andres

Credit: Bob Andres

Still, it was not a swift vote. There was a disagreement between House and Senate lawmakers over whether to put an expiration date on the emergency declaration that tied up negotiations for more than four hours.

As antsy lawmakers roamed the Statehouse halls, frustrated about the impasse, top officials huddled privately to hash out an agreement. Pizza was ordered to feed hungry legislators and staffers, who expected to be finished by midmorning.

They agreed to extend the declaration through at least April 15, when lawmakers could return to Atlanta for another special session to decide whether to renew the governor’s emergency powers another month.

‘Call to action’

While Kemp's declaration had broad bipartisan support, some legislators and civil rights advocates called for the governor to exercise restraint with the new powers, which also let him mandate evacuations, commandeer private property and order vaccinations.

“We understand that the governor needs to respond to this crisis, but the governor of Georgia is a very powerful executive,” said Andrea Young, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia. “Further concentration of power in the executive branch must be accompanied by oversight and transparency."

The governor said Friday tht he'll initially use the authority to help nurses from other states get temporary Georgia licenses and lift restrictions on commercial truck drivers. He also called up roughly 2,000 Georgia National Guard troops.

He has not yet said what other significant steps he could take under the emergency declaration, though he has so far resisted urging restrictions on large gatherings, schools or businesses.

Credit: Bob Andres

Credit: Bob Andres

Instead, the governor has issued a "call to action" encouraging community leaders to consider scrapping events, pleaded with Georgians to "incorporate social distancing" and told most state staffers to work from home.

Many have heeded the advice. School districts accounting for more than 1.2 million of Georgia’s 1.8 million students suspended classes, and houses of worship across the state held online services.

Grocery aisles were picked clean, events scrapped, standardized school tests canceled and restaurants converted to takeout only. And Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said Monday that the city is restricting any public gatherings of more than 50 people. 

The vote was held days after lawmakers agreed to indefinitely suspend the 40-day legislative session because of the pandemic, and some tried to steer clear of one another during their unexpected return to the Capitol.

"I am concerned, but this is my duty," state Rep. Mike Wilensky, D-Dunwoody, told his constituents. "I will be touching nothing and no one."

In Capitol hallways typically packed with lobbyists, nurses checked temperatures of legislators. State Rep. Alan Powell, R-Hartwell, wore a surgical mask around his neck.

Word quickly spread that one House member was forced to self-quarantine after possibly being exposed to the illness.

Inside the chamber, House Speaker David Ralston cast the voting in historic terms, saying it would prove to their grandchildren "they did not allow political obstacles" to get in the way of unity.

Credit: Bob Andres

Credit: Bob Andres

“The challenges we face are many, but as we take this step today, I hope we will do so with the resolve that we will do what we must to protect the safety, the health and the well-being of the people of Georgia,” said Ralston, “because there’s no higher obligation we have.”

During the lengthy delay, state legislators huddled in close quarters with one another to share stories about their communities and trade tips about the coronavirus response.

It was approved by a 142-1 vote in the House, with the lone "no" coming from state Rep. Matt Gurtler of Tiger, who often votes against measures he sees as a government overreach.

“It gave unlimited power to the government, and I thought it set a bad precedent,” said Gurtler, who supported an earlier version of the legislation. “These emergency powers aren’t something we take lightly. And we needed a stronger check.”