The sign outside Due West United Methodist Church in Cobb County. Jim Galloway,jgalloway@ajc.com

The Jolt: Clergy on call with governor told ‘virtually’ all outbreaks have some link to religious services 

The coronavirus crackdown has forced Gov. Brian Kemp to make a string of tough decisions. But one that he’s more visibly struggled over is whether to impose restrictions on religious services.

In several interviews, he’s talked of personal turmoil over the notion of requiring church services to be online or instituting other limits. And a call Wednesday with more than 800 clergy punctuated the debate. 

On the crowded conference call line, Kemp reminded listeners that his order earlier this week spared them of being forced to shut down Sunday and other gatherings. They could still hold services with social distancing, he said, mentioning one congregation that decided to worship outside on a recent weekend. 

But he warned them that his order this week gave the state Department of Public Health the authority to shut down houses of worship and other nonprofits that defied his order that forbids tighter gatherings of more than 10 people. 

“The community is going to be what stops this coronavirus,” he said. “There is no cure right now. There is no vaccine. The only thing we can do right now is to work together until there is one.”

The governor gave no mention to President Donald Trump’s aim to lift restrictions in time for packed congregations to celebrate Easter on April 12.

Then came Dr. Kathleen Toomey, the state public health commissioner, with a sharper warning. The state has several “hotspots” of outbreaks, including in Albany, Bartow County, Dublin and Rome. 

In “virtually all these cases,” at least some of the spread was linked to “large church services,” she said. In Dougherty County, for instance, the coronavirus outbreak has been traced to two funeral services in late February and early March.

Toomey told clergy on the call that churches, synagogues and mosques that have the technical capacity to offer online services should do so. “This is a short period of inconvenience and worry, but if we invest in this collectively as a community we can help stop this virus,” she said.

Amen and amen.

***

Also on a religious note: Russell Moore is the president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention.

In an op-ed in today’s New York Times, Moore weighs into the debate over whether government should emphasize saving the economy or saving lives. A taste:

We must get back to work, get the economy back on its feet, but we can only do that when doing so will not kill the vulnerable and overwhelm our hospitals, our doctors, our nurses, and our communities.

And along the way we must guard our consciences. We cannot pass by on the side of the road when the elderly, the disabled, the poor, and the vulnerable are in peril before our eyes. We want to hear the sound of cash registers again, but we cannot afford to hear them over the cries of those made in the image of God.

***

Frustrated with Gov. Brian Kemp’s response to Georgia’s growing coronavirus crisis, state Democrats are gathering sharp questions from voters ahead of tonight’s 8 p.m. televised town hall event featuring the Republican and some of his top deputies.

In crises like these, it is not uncommon for governmental leaders to adopt a unity government approach -- to share not only ideas, but responsibility. But other than naming Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, it is worth noting that few other well-known Democrats are part of the Kemp team. This is happening in Washington as well -- as Vanity Fair points out:

At a moment when most presidents would call upon members of the so-called Presidents Club, the men who once held the job and who know what it’s like to face catastrophes, the chasm between [President] Donald Trump and his predecessors has grown even wider. It is one casualty of this norm-defying presidency coming into stark view during this crisis.

When Trump was asked during Sunday’s White House Coronavirus Task Force press conference whether he would reach out to his predecessors for help, he basically said, Thanks, but no thanks. “I don’t think I’m going to learn much. And, you know, I guess you could say that there’s probably a natural inclination not to call.”

***

Georgia-specific numbers aren’t out yet, but new U.S. Department of Labor figures released Thursday morning show more than 3.28 million people filed initial jobless claims for the week ending March 21, according to the AJC’s Tim Darnell. The obliterates the previous high of 695,000 in October 1982, according to the department’s report.

***

State Sen. Lester Jackson, D-Savannah, has become the fifth member of his chamber to test positive for the coronavirus. From his note to us:

“[M]y wife and I were tested on March 20th. Although I had no symptoms prior to testing, three days after being tested I developed a mild dry cough. This morning we were informed that I tested positive and she tested negative.

“I am halfway through a self-imposed 14 day quarantine that began on March 18th. Per doctor’s instructions, I will remain self-quarantined at home for an additional eight days.”

***

Former Georgia congressman and House speaker Newt Gingrich is in Italy, where his wife Calista is the U.S. ambassador to the Vatican. On Tuesday, Gingrich was interviewed on a Fox News podcast -- and said the coronavirus probably arrived in Italy by jetliner. From the website:

"None of us, at least I didn't know that there were 100,000 Chinese [people] living in northern Italy and that many of them come from Wuhan and that there was a flight between Milan and Wuhan," Gingrich explained.

"We think that's how the virus got Italy early," he added. "Initially, the government didn't realize how dangerous it was going to be ... it dealt with it initially as sort of a small town, local regional problem, and then boom, it exploded."

Italy entered the third week of a nationwide lockdown Sunday, closing all non-essential businesses, as the death toll continued to climb over 5,000.

***

U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler’s getting much of the national criticism over her stock trades following a private coronavirus briefing. But Democrats are eager to throw U.S. Sen. David Perdue into the mix as well. 

Jon Ossoff, a candidate for the seat, held a virtual press conference to announce a letter co-signed by about three dozen elected officials and party figures that calls for the Senate ethics investigation into “suspicious stock trading” by Perdue and Loeffler. You can read it here. 

The other two top Democrats in the contest - Sarah Riggs Amico and Teresa Tomlinson - issued similar calls for an investigation. 

Both Republicans said they kept their distance from the transactions, but Perdue’s allies have been particularly eager to separate himself from the controversy surrounding Loeffler.

He bought and sold in roughly equal amounts in nearly 100 transactions from late January through mid-February, and his aides have said the former Fortune 500 chief executive has always used an independent adviser to make financial decisions.

“For the past five years, the senator has gone above and beyond to fully comply with the law and Senate ethics requirements,” said his spokeswoman, Casey Black, who added that “nothing has changed in how the senator’s portfolio is being managed during the coronavirus crisis.”

Asked about that response, Ossoff pointed to Perdue’s investment in Pfizer, the pharmaceutical giant, and his sale of up to $165,000 in stocks of Caesar Entertainment, the casino company whose facilities have recently shuttered.

“Let’s get it very clear. He sold Caesars casino entertainment stocks, and he bought Pfizer,” said Ossoff. “If he wants to present other trades he made during this period as mitigating evidence, he can do so.”

***

There have been efforts in the past to change federal law to prevent members of Congress from owning stock in individual companies, and U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler’s recent transactions — plus U.S. Sen. David Perdue’s to a lesser extent — during the coronavirus pandemic have reignited those talks. While several lawmakers and securities law experts over the years have suggested reforms, there has never been enough support for anything to be done. 

Your Washington Insider has more about the latest proposal filed:

In a direct response to the controversy, Democratic U.S. Reps. Raja Krishnamoorthi of Illinois, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, and Joe Neguse of Colorado announced Monday that they will introduce legislation to prohibit members of Congress from trading individual stock or serving on corporate boards.

“The recent news reports have made it clear that it’s past time to end the potential conflicts of interest created by members of Congress and their top staffers trading in stocks while making decisions affecting their values and receiving sensitive, nonpublic information through government service,” Krishnamoorthi said in a news release.

***

The U.S. Senate, including Georgia’s David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, voted unanimously in favor of the $2 trillion coronavirus stimulus bill. The legislation includes sending checks to most U.S. taxpayers, expanded unemployment coverage for those who are out of work, bailout funds for businesses and new dollars for hospitals and health care facilities helping to battle the virus’s spread. 

The U.S. House is scheduled to take a voice vote on the measure Friday, an effort to pass the bill in that chamber without requiring all of its 435 members to return to Washington. However, if just one member objects then that plan could be scuttled and a roll call vote will be scheduled. 

***

One of the most flamboyant figures in Georgia politics from the 1960s and ‘70s has died. “Machine Gun” Ronnie Thompson, 85, was a former mayor of Macon, jeweler, occasional country music singer and unsuccessful 1974 GOP candidate for governor.

Thompson has been absent from the political scene for 35 years. From a 1984 profile in the AJC:

Thompson took office during the peak of the racial unrest of the 1960s. Other cities were scarred by riots, but Thompson vowed that it would not happen in Macon. He took dramatic action, stocking the police department with sophisticated weapons, including machine guns and a cannonless army tank.

But he now says it is a myth -- a myth he helped orchestrate -- that he or anyone in the police department ever fired a machine gun.

Macon residents who heard the sound of machine-gun fire on their police radios during the July 4, 1971, weekend were hearing a tape-recorded simulation designed to scare citizens into staying off the streets during a period of racial unrest, the former mayor says.

'It was a noise the policemen devised,' he said. 'I had it done. The machine guns never left the arsenal.'

He said he did take a shot at a sniper, but with a carbine, not a machine gun.

Nonetheless, the Thompson submachine gun – the kind that became famous during the Roaring Twenties – became a symbol of Thompson’s 1974 gubernatorial race against Democrat George Busbee. Busbee won.

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