Kemp faces growing pressure to enact new coronavirus restrictions

Gov. Brian Kemp’s refusal so far to use emergency powers to impose restrictions to stem the spread of coronavirus has led to a patchwork of local regulations.

Gov. Brian Kemp's refusal to use emergency powers to impose stiffer restrictions to stem the spread of coronavirus has led to a patchwork of local regulations that public health experts warn could undermine Georgia's effort to contain the disease.

The Republican banned many large gatherings and ordered a shelter in place for "medically fragile" on Monday. But he's skeptical of broader moves in part because he worries any "overreach" would backfire.

UPDATES: Kemp bans many large gatherings, orders shelter in place for ‘medically fragile’

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.

At least 36 other states have enacted statewide limits on gatherings and restricted restaurants and other businesses, according to the National Governors Association, as Kemp weighed taking similar steps. 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."

"We need Governor Kemp to act now, the point of 'no return' for Georgia is rapidly closing," said Carlos del Rio, the chair of the Department of Global Health Studies at Emory University. "To prevent a catastrophe in the healthcare system due to Covid-19, we need for him to shut down Georgia now."

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.’”

March12, 2020 Atlanta - Speaker of the House David Ralston speaks as the morning session begins during Crossover day at the Georgia State Capitol on Thursday, March 11, 2020. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

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.

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

And many, including del Rio, have highlighted research from CovidActNow.org, a group of scientists and public health analysts, that projects Georgia must take sweeping measures between March 24-29 to "prevent hospital overload."

‘I can’t believe’

The governor instead has relied on the soft power of his office to encourage clergy members to hold services online and Georgians to stay home if they can, while trumpeting businesses and officials who have taken measures to limit the public’s exposure to the disease.

Until Monday's new restrictions, the broadest mandate he's issued was an order last week that all school systems shutter through the end of the month, though most had already done so voluntarily. 

In some parts of Georgia, city and county officials have stepped in with more expansive restrictions.

January 14, 2020 - Atlanta - Rep. Calvin Smyre D - Columbus, watches as Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms talks with the media after she addressed the house. The Georgia General Assembly continued with the second legislative day of the 2020 session.

Credit: Bob Andres, bandres@ajc.com

Credit: Bob Andres, bandres@ajc.com

Aside from Atlanta’s restrictions, many densely populated suburbs and mid-size cities around Georgia have limited restaurants to take-out only and shut down bars and nightclubs. Several local governments have imposed curfews.

And after 11 cases of the disease were connected to a gathering in the city of Carrollton, city officials held an emergency meeting Sunday to block groups of residents from congregating and close restaurants to all but takeout.

"I can't believe Kemp still won't act," said Russell Edwards, an Athens-Clarke County commissioner who helped engineer a "shelter in place" policy in the governor's hometown. "How many more people must die before Kemp listens to the experts on how to respond?"

The ‘end of the world?’

A tracking document obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution shows roughly 100 cities have adopted measures to respond to the outbreak, though those range widely from delaying council meetings to mandatory curfews.

Counties, too, have enacted a hodgepodge of restrictions. Officials in Laurens County in middle Georgia set a nightly curfew limiting non-essential travel after two residents tested positive for the illness. But several surrounding counties have taken far more limited steps to stop people from gathering.

"I am wholly disappointed in how long it took our county to act," said Seth Clark, a Macon-Bibb County commission candidate of the mayor's decision Monday to announce restrictions on restaurants.

It “led to a large portion of the public going about their lives as usual” and possibly prolonging their exposure to the disease, he said.

Some of the loudest calls for action come from metro Atlanta legislators, who have taken to social media and launched petitions urging Kemp to “shut down” Georgia.

Dalton Mayor David Pennington

Credit: Greg Bluestein

Credit: Greg Bluestein

Sandy Springs Councilman Andy Bauman is among those who have repeatedly urged Kemp to take more decisive measures, saying that his policy has led to “dozens of municipalities making decisions that are inconsistent and confusing, not necessarily with the latest information.”

Still, there are many local leaders in more sparsely-populated parts of the state, areas where Kemp won by hefty margins in 2018, that are more skeptical of statewide mandates.

Mayor Phil Best of Dublin, a Laurens County city, said last week he prizes "local rule" over state intervention. And Dalton Mayor David Pennington has railed against what he's described as "hysteria" surrounding the highly contagious illness.

“The cure could be worse than the disease,” said Pennington, a former candidate for Georgia governor. “Is it a serious virus? Of course. But is it the end of the world? I don’t think so.”

 

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