Phoebe Putney Health System in Albany, GA on Monday, March 16, 2020, set up a tent for drive-through testing for COVID-19 and its virus, the novel coronavirus. People who want testing must call the hospital where eight or nine nurses are working a phone line to screen them. If they qualify for testing, they are given a unique number to present when they arrive at the tent. They drive through, are swabbed while sitting in their cars, and are notified later. Labcorp does the tests and is currently swamped, apparently, taking up to five days to process tests.
Photo: Courtesy of Phoebe Putney H.S./Courtesy of Phoebe Putney H.S.
Photo: Courtesy of Phoebe Putney H.S./Courtesy of Phoebe Putney H.S.

The Jolt: The Democratic presidential contest falls under the shadow of a pandemic

The 2020 Democratic presidential primary today confronts a first major test of voting under a national public health emergency. Ohio has called off its election, while balloting in Florida, Arizona and Illinois moves forward. From the Associated Press:

Not since New York City postponed its mayoral primary on the day of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks has an election been pushed off in such a high-profile, far-reaching way. Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine initially asked a court to delay the vote, and when a judge refused to do so, the state's health director declared a health emergency that would prevent the polls from opening.

How the two remaining Democratic candidates are reaching out to voters during a coronavirus pandemic:

Sanders staged a virtual rally Monday night featuring himself, rocker Neil Young and activist actress Daryl Hannah. He also released a video criticizing Biden for suggesting as a senator that he'd be willing to cut Social Security benefits — a line of attack he employed frequently during Sunday's debate.

….Biden appeared to keep his focus Monday on winning the nomination, as he encouraged voters in a telephone town hall to participate in Tuesday primaries but to do so safely.

Joining him was former Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy, who served during President Barack Obama's second term. Murthy encouraged voters at high risk of contracting coronavirus to vote by mail or use curbside voting, if available, but he also explained precautions elections officials are planning in the Tuesday primary states.

The Washington Post reports that, even as he switched to a more aggressive tone regarding the pandemic, the man in the White House favored continued voting:

President Trump thinks they should go on: “I think postponing is unnecessary,” he said Monday.

The New York Times posits that both Arizona and Florida have strong early voting traditions, which could reduce the impact of the pandemic. Illinois may be the most vulnerable.

With Georgia shifting its presidential primaries from March 24 to May 19, after today the Democratic contest will take at least a 12-day hiatus. Puerto Rico votes on Sunday, March 29, but officials on the island are seeking a postponement.

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Gov. Brian Kemp’s office had a sharp response to a New York Times report on audio leaked from President Donald Trump’s discussion with governors and other state leaders. 

In that conversation, Trump urged governors to not wait for the federal government to meet the demand for respirators and “try to get it yourselves.” That baffled some governors who are increasingly relying on Washington for help with equipment and resources. 

Not Kemp, apparently. His spokesman Cody Hall said the president’s advice was “part of a response about encouraging governors to collaborate with private sector partners in getting medical equipment and dispersing testing. The point: states may get both quicker that way.”

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An initiative that could be more aggressive than we reported on Monday: Our AJC colleague Mark Niesse reports that Georgia’s delayed presidential primary brings the possibility that election officials will mail absentee ballot applications to older voters, or even to every voter in the state -- both of which would be unprecedented steps to avoid human contact in an election amid the coronavirus.

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Another sign of the times: Below is the first of a five-point list of operational changes announced by the Marietta Police Department:

Reports will no longer be taken while inside the lobby, an officer or ambassador will accompany the individual outside. When possible, the individual needing the report can remain in their vehicle with the officer or ambassador standing outside their vehicle.

A note from the police department says the agency basing the changes on new CDC guidelines for law enforcement officers.

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Over at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, Kyle Wingfield notes that North Carolina has suspended its certificate-of-need law, which requires state permission before a hospital can increased its licensed bed capacity by more than 10%. Georgia has a similar law. Writes Wingfield in the Brunswick News:

Kemp should explore waiving many CON restrictions for the duration of the crisis, allowing providers to expand existing facilities and stand up new ones as needed.

With a shortage of health care workers even before the pandemic, making more of them fall ill and exacerbating the problem, it also would be nice right about now if those we do have could practice medicine to the fullest extent of their training — their “scope of practice.”

Unfortunately, to name one example, Georgia is not one of the 22 states that have passed laws allowing nurse practitioners to ease more of the workload of doctors, who can then focus on advanced procedures. This includes evaluating patients, working with diagnostic tests, managing treatments and even prescribing some medications, according to the American Association of Nurse Practitioners.

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The Associated Press has singled out a metro Atlanta gun store – which it identifies as the largest in the world – as a hotspot for gun purchases with lines six and eight people deep:

“It's been insane,” said Jay Wallace, who owns Adventure Outdoors in Smyrna, Georgia, adding that his ammunition sales are up more than five times the usual numbers. “This is like a Rod Serling ‘Twilight Zone’ episode."

…Some gun shows have been canceled, but online sales and in-person sales at federally licensed dealers appear to be up. Ammo.com has reported sales up nearly 70 percent from Feb. 23 to March 4 over the previous 11 days.

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Late last night, the Athens-Clarke County Commission took steps that are among the most restrictive in Georgia to try to halt the spread of the coronavirus. The Athens Banner-Herald reports that lawmakers banned many public gatherings but stopped short of imposing a curfew:

The public gathering ban prohibits more than 10 people at establishments such as bars and restaurants, places of entertainment and gatherings on publicly owned property, including streets.

Commissioners rejected a broader ban that would also have applied to other public gatherings such as political rallies, weddings and church gatherings. The ban could be broadened later depending on research the commission asked Athens-Clarke County Attorney Judd Drake to do.

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Republicans may be bracing for an ill turn of fortune in November. From the New York Times:

Running out of federal court vacancies to fill, Senate Republicans have been quietly making overtures to sitting Republican-nominated judges who are eligible to retire to urge them to step aside so they can be replaced while the party still holds the Senate and the White House.

Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky, who has used his position as majority leader to build a judicial confirmation juggernaut for President Trump over the past three years, has been personally reaching out to judges to sound them out on their plans and assure them that they would have a worthy successor if they gave up their seats soon, according to multiple people with knowledge of his actions.

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Angela Stanton-King, the Donald Trump-supporting challenger to U.S. Rep. John Lewis, has faced her first scandal on the campaign trail.

Shortly after announcing her candidacy for Georgia’s Fifth Congressional District, Stanton-King posted comments on Twitter that were widely described as anti-gay. One tweet, now deleted, appeared to compare being LGBTQ with pedophilia. Another said American society is more accepting of transgender people than people who served time after felony convictions.

“I’m very concerned about the whole LGBTQ movement and the way it sexualizes children,” Stanton-King told NBC News after the tweets were posted. “The LGBTQ community refers to people’s sexual preferences — lesbians like women, gay people like men — and children shouldn’t be walking advertisements for sexuality when they are not old enough to make their own decisions.”

In addition to erasing her most criticized tweet, Stanton-King followed up with a three-part apology that said she did not mean to offend but was concerned that certain choices made by adults harm children.

“I will reconsider my delivery in how I address this issue, and posts deemed offensive have been removed, she wrote. “And I will be mindful to consider the feelings of others moving forward, and I hope you will forgive me.”

***

There will be no election for a soon-to-be-vacant Georgia Supreme Court seat, a Fulton County judge has ruled, although an appeal is almost certain. From the AJC’s Amanda C. Coyne:

In a decision returned Monday, Fulton County Superior Court Judge Emily Richardson said the seat was legally vacant, citing the same line of Georgia law used by an attorney from the Georgia Attorney General’s Office representing the state in the case.

A section of Georgia law says a state office is vacated as the result of seven different scenarios, including “by resignation, when accepted.” Gov. Brian Kemp has accepted Blackwell’s resignation, so even though he is still writing opinions and hearing cases for the next eight months, the seat is legally vacant.

Attorneys for both plaintiffs plan to appeal the case. Lester Tate, a lawyer for former U.S. Rep. John Barrow, said he wasn’t surprised by the ruling, but found it “seriously flawed” because it cited an internal opinion from the Attorney General’s Office.

***

The Georgia Supreme Court has ruled against DeKalb County commissioners in a case related to their surprise vote to raise their salaries by 60%. The ruling said that a Superior Court judge erroneously dismissed some claims filed by a local activist wanting to invalidate the raises.

The case is now kicked back to the lower court for a re-hearing, the AJC’s Tyler Estep reports. Ed Williams filed a lawsuit after the controversial vote in 2018, and he was assisted with his appeal to the Supreme Court last by students at the University of Georgia’s law school.

While the Supreme Court did not rule on the merit of any alleged violations themselves, it found that Williams should have been permitted to pursue civil penalties against individual commissioners for allegedly violating the state’s Open Meetings Act. It also found that Williams’ request for an injunction to stop DeKalb CEO Michael Thurmond from paying the new salaries was dismissed prematurely.

The case was sent back to DeKalb Superior Court Judge Gregory A. Adams to hash things out.

“I’m elated by the decision that the court made,” Williams said Monday. “I kind of expected that result, but it made me happy when it was actually rendered. It gave me some relief that two years of working on the case was not lost and wasted.”

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