The Jolt: 538 Georgia cities asked to declare public health emergencies

March12, 2020 Atlanta - Gov. Brian Kemp speaks as other officials standing behind 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)
March12, 2020 Atlanta - Gov. Brian Kemp speaks as other officials standing behind 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)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

The Georgia Municipal Association on Tuesday morning urged the leaders of all 538 cities in the state to declare public health emergencies and shut down non-essential businesses within their boundaries, pressing beyond the coronavirus restrictions set by Gov. Brian Kemp less than 24 hours earlier.

The organization made the decision after a Monday afternoon presentation by Dr. Carlos del Rio, the executive associate dean for Emory at Grady Health System, to mayors, city managers, county commission chairs and county managers across the state. A model ordinance has been posted here. One measure of its scope:

Gyms, fitness centers, pools, social clubs, amusement facilities, bowling alleys, pool halls, theaters, massage parlors, nail salons, and any other similar facility, any facility used for an activity that involves prolonged physical proximity of individuals, and any facility used for entertainment, social, grooming, or general health and wellbeing purposes, must close and remain closed for the duration of this emergency.

Large cities and counties have already done so. Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms prepared a shelter-in-place order that will allow city residents to leave their homes only for reasons deemed essential. She had planned to sign an emergency order Monday but delayed it at the governor's request.

DeKalb County CEO Michael Thurmond declared a state of emergency, banning public gatherings of 10 or more people — including funerals — and imposing a “voluntary curfew” from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m.

A GMA spokeswoman said the call for individual declarations of emergency by cities did not represent a policy difference with the governor.

“The governor has clearly stated his support for local actions that go beyond his orders, and members from his office are encouraging locals to consider GMA’s draft ordinance,” wrote Kelli Bennett in an email.

The governor, under pressure to aggressively combat Georgia's coronavirus outbreak, on Monday banned many public gatherings, closed bars and nightclubs, and authorized officials to shut down any business or institution that doesn't comply with social distancing requirements — even churches. More:

But Kemp stopped short of ordering most Georgians to stay in their homes, closing restaurants or taking other more drastic measures imposed by a growing number of governors as the pandemic worsens. He did place restrictions on the Georgians considered most at risk of infection.

…In an executive order signed Monday, Kemp authorized the state Department of Public Health to close any business or other institution, such as churches, that don't limit crowds to no more than 10 people. He asked for the public's help in enforcing the ban, which only applies to gatherings where people aren't at least 6 feet apart.

If Georgians see that a business is not complying, he said, "call them out — or report them to us."

The gap between restrictions called for by the governor and the GMA is being replicated in the White House, where President Donald Trump said he was contemplating the lifting of some measures imposed during the pandemic in order to preserve the nation's economy. From the Washington Post:

President Trump, under growing pressure to rescue an economy in free fall, said Monday that he may soon loosen federal guidelines for social distancing and encourage shuttered businesses to reopen — defying public health experts, who have warned that doing so risks accelerating the spread of the novel coronavirus or even allowing it to rebound.

"America will again and soon be open for business — very soon," Trump said at the daily White House news conference. "We cannot let the cure be worse than the problem itself."

In Georgia, the GMA may have some support for its tougher position on pandemic controls. From the AJC report, quoting House Speaker David Ralston:

"I would support Gov. Kemp if he chooses to issue an order requiring nonessential workers to remain home for another 10 days, two weeks, to see if we can flatten this curve a little bit," Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, told an online news outlet in North Georgia. "If we overreact, thank God we overreact."

You can stroll through the model GMA emergency declaration below:

***

Gov. Brian Kemp offered a window into his approach to curbing the disease this morning on WSB radio. Here's what he said:

"The community is going to stop this virus. It's not going to be the government or a medical provider right now. Until we find the vaccine or a cure for this, and that is months if not years away, society can stop the spread of this and contain it.

"We're not going to keep it from getting here. It's here, it's spreading as an airborne virus now. We've got to deal with it. But we also have to keep our economy going where it's reasonable and make sure we don't have bad social outcomes."

His aides and allies, meanwhile, rushed to his defense on social media after backlash that his restrictions on Monday to rein in the coronavirus didn’t go far enough.

Click here for an AJC editorial on the topic -- which also points out that the state Department of Public Health is holding back on important details about the virus. Such as which nursing homes and assisted living centers have been hit with the coronavirus, and how many Georgians have been hospitalized.

Brad Hughes, a Kemp field representative, posted on Facebook a notice that Kemp has “no intention of closing the state line!”

“If you can close your business to distance yourself from people for a period of time, there very well might be wisdom in that,” wrote Hughes. “But if you can safely make a dollar without endangering yourself or anyone else, everyone supports you doing just that.”

And Donovan Head, another Kemp deputy, pleaded with Georgians in a much-shared post to “give these new guidelines a chance.”

“They follow the most current CDC guidelines and it sounds a lot better than someone from the comfort of their couch at home shouting for an all out shutdown which would cause many people to lose their jobs and many others their small businesses.”

On the other side of the line is Fair Fight Action, the group founded by Kemp adversary Stacey Abrams.

“Today, Brian Kemp’s failure of leadership was once again made clear by his weak measures that are too little and, for many Georgians, literally too late.”

***

The most chilling portion of Gov. Brian Kemp's address on Monday was on the topic of hospital bed space:

"In Dougherty County, emergency management officials are working to reopen Phoebe North, which is currently closed but will offer at least twenty-six rooms for patients once we get it back up and running. In Albany, we have identified an additional facility with capacity for roughly sixty medical and isolation beds if needed. In addition, we have asked federal officials to allow us to keep the temporary medical facility at Dobbins Air Reserve Base. Once cruise ship passengers depart, we are hopeful that we will have this location in the metro-area for patient diversion. It will offer roughly 200 patient beds if needed.

"At the Georgia Public Safety Training Center, we have completed construction of an isolation zone to hold as many as twenty emergency housing units, and the campus offers as many as 242 dorm rooms to use for patient surge. Earlier today, Vice President Pence called on governors to inventory all of our outpatient surgical centers to determine potential bed space. This process has already been underway through the Department of Community Health, and we will report back to our federal counterparts once we finalize the numbers…

"Right now, the state is exploring projects with the Army Corps of Engineers for arena space and large buildings, and we are considering the conversion of vacant and underutilized properties of all types for hospital space."

***

As we debate which should come first, the pandemic or the economy, our AJC colleague Alan Judd reminds us of what's really at stake:

A 48-year-old woman who worked at Donalsonville Hospital in southwestern Georgia tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, and died Thursday at a hospital in Tallahassee, Florida.

The same day, a mammogram technician at Piedmont Newnan Hospital was found dead in her Coweta County home. Laboratory tests confirmed the woman had COVID-19, Coweta County Coroner Richard Hawk said.

 The woman, 42, had been dead 12 to 16 hours when the police, checking on her welfare, discovered her body, Hawk said.

***

Former Columbus mayor Teresa Tomlinson, a Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate, has entered the debate over whether the economy or the pandemic should get priority:

 

In the meantime, there's a report that the current mayor of Columbus, Skip Henderson is self-quarantining after coming into contact with someone who have have the  the COVID-19 coronavirus.

***

U.S. Rep. Jody Hice, R-Monroe, indicated support for easing social distancing in an attempt to reverse some of the economic impacts of the coronavirus pandemic, something that President Donald Trump has also hinted at.

Noting the faltering markets, increasing unemployment and failing businesses, Hice, R-Monroe, wrote: "Which is worse, the illness or our 'fix'? Americans stand up to challenges. Don't succumb to fear! Trust in God. Protect yourself and others, and move forward!"

Two hours later, Hice added more thoughts in a reply to Trump’s “we can’t let the cure be worse than the problem” tweet. Hice wrote that said the current health precautions needed to remain in place until the country can get a better handle on the virus.

"America is shut down largely (because) we don't have sufficient testing to determine who's sick and who's healthy on a mass scale," he wrote. "As soon as we have that ability to test millions, we need to start mobilizing our country to get folks back to work. In the meantime, be smart & be safe!"

***

Already posted: This was supposed to be the day that Georgia Democrats went to polls to pick their presidential nominee. Instead, the vote has been put off until May 19, the result of negotiations between Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and state Sen. Nikema Williams, who chairs the Democratic Party of Georgia:

But imagine the scene if the vote would have gone on as scheduled – a day after Kemp urged "medically fragile" Georgians to stay at home.

Droves of poll workers, most of whom are septuagenarians, would have stayed home on governor's orders. Voting sites would have been scrutinized for a dearth of hand sanitizers and wipes, and national media would capture the spectacle of longer lines that sprouted thanks to social distancing.

And even Williams wouldn't have been able to actively take part. She said Sunday she contracted the disease, one of at least four state senators to test positive, and is self-isolating with her family at her Atlanta home.

***

Georgia's dual Senate races give Democrats a chance to paint both GOP incumbents with the same brush.

And after reports that U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler unloaded as much as $3.1 million worth of stocks following a coronavirus briefing, that's what left-leaning groups are doing.

Majority Forward, a Democratic-party aligned group, said Tuesday it was launching a six-figure ad buy that runs statewide urging a Senate Ethics investigation into both Loeffler and U.S. Sen. David Perdue. You can watch the ad here.

Loeffler has said she wasn’t aware of many of the transactions until weeks after they occurred and called the media reports a “ridiculous and baseless attack.”

But Democrats are also trying to implicate Perdue, who bought and sold in roughly equal amounts in nearly 100 transactions from late January through mid-February. His staff has been eager to distance Perdue from the controversy surrounding Loeffler, pointing out that he has always used an independent adviser to make financial decisions.

Loeffler, too, says she’s kept her distance from the transactions, and is informed only after they occur.

Two other developments landed Monday that are sure to reverberate on the campaign trail.

The Securities and Exchange Commission issued a warning about "market integrity" against trading on nonpublic information related to the disease, though CBS reports it did not refer to Loeffler or other senators by name.

***

Naming Stacey Abrams as his running mate would give Joe Biden the best chance of beating President Donald Trump in November, should he secure the Democratic nomination, according to new polling by Way to Win, a women-led network of deep-pocketed progressive donors. From NBC News:

The think tank, whose polls of presidential primary contests this year have been highly regarded for their accuracy, conducted an online survey of 4,998 likely voters across the country on March 12 to gauge how potential Democratic tickets would fare against Trump and Vice President Mike Pence.

The group tested five buzzed-about potential options: Abrams and Sens. Kamala Harris of California, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Cory Booker of New Jersey (Biden has since committed to picking a woman).

Data for Progress founder Sean McElwee wrote in a memo analyzing the findings that Abrams performed uniquely well across a range of demographic groups, including both independent voters and core Democratic constituencies whose lower-than-expected turnout in 2016 hurt Hillary Clinton.

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