Emails show high-ranking Fulton health officials want BeltLine closed



Fulton County's stay-at-home order aimed at controlling the spread of the coronavirus specifies fines and possible jail time for violators, but fails to address the places where violations most frequently occur — the Atlanta BeltLine and city parks.

Emails obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution show some of Fulton County’s highest ranking health officials privately pushed for closing both before the order was issued on Wednesday.

“Next steps should really include our parks,” wrote health board member Clint Owens in an email Tuesday. “There were far too many people not complying with social distancing this weekend.”

Atlanta City Councilwoman Carla Smith, a registered nurse who sits on the Fulton County Health Board, said people in her district have torn down tape the city placed on basketball goals to discourage games. She responded to Owens’ email by suggesting stricter and more specific language to the draft order.

READ | All Fulton residents ordered to stay home or face jail/fines to curb COVID-19

“Should we add ‘trails’ including the BeltLine?” she wrote. “I had lots of people notifying me re: groups at parks and on the BeltLine.”

Dr. S. Elizabeth Ford, interim director of the Fulton Board of Health, ultimately signed an order that included neither. It allows people to venture outside for essential activities, so long as they stay six feet away from each other.

But Ford joined in the email conversation and acknowledged that the BeltLine is a problem.

“The BeltLine is the bane of my existence right now,” Ford wrote.

The Atlanta BeltLine is a path encircling the city that will eventually connect 45 in-town neighborhoods with a 22-mile loop of multi-use trails. It is an amenity described as the most comprehensive urban revitalization project in Atlanta history, and in the age of coronavirus has stirred debate that has pitted physical and mental health against each another.

Coronavirus in Georgia | Get the latest coverage from The AJC by clicking here.

Medical professionals and city leaders widely agree that being outdoors is important, but they worry that the 14-foot-wide path that attracts large crowds could turn into a highway for the deadly pathogen in the county with the highest number of coronavirus cases in Georgia.

Fulton had 712 coronavirus cases as of Thursday, and the Atlanta-Fulton Emergency Management Agency said Tuesday that as many as 10 to 15 county residents could die every day from COVID-19 between mid-April and mid-May.

Ford, who also leads DeKalb County’s public health agency, told the AJC Thursday that her comment to board members was a “cheeky, frustrated response.” But she said danger on the BeltLine is real for people not taking the proper precautions, like those seen on social media crowded together along the path.

“From reports I’ve heard, it’s a free-for-all,” Ford told the AJC.



READ | Coronavirus causes changes to services throughout Fulton and cities

For Ford, the major problem is enforcement. It isn’t feasible to ask police to guard every trail entrance, she said.

"How do we enforce that? Because we already have a shelter in place order that no one is adhering to," Ford said, referring to the stay-at-home order issued by Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms last week.

The Fulton Board of Health is the largest of the 18 public health districts in Georgia, and is managed by the state health department not Fulton County government.

It has various powers — like shutting down a restaurant it deems to be a health hazard — during regular times. But its’ powers swell during emergencies, when it can limit travel into or within Georgia, impose isolation, close any facility or require vaccination.

Some council members also want BeltLine closed

The debate about whether to close the BeltLine has been just as vigorous on the Atlanta City Council.

Atlanta City Council President Felicia Moore has publicly called for its closure during the pandemic, as has Councilman Michael Julian Bond. Council members said earlier this week that they’ve heard reports of people gathering in city parks to play basketball and football.

But Mayor Bottoms has kept the amenity open based on the advice of a prominent infectious disease expert at Emory University, Dr. Carlos Del Rio, who said on Thursday that his position hasn’t changed.

A spokeswoman for the BeltLine provided the AJC with a graphic showing that people are less frequently using the most popular portion of the BeltLine — the Eastside Trail. From the first weekend in March to this past weekend, the average trips per minute has dropped to 9 from 24 during the peak-use hour of 4-5 p.m.

“While the data is going in the right direction, we are constantly monitoring the situation,” said BeltLine Spokeswoman Jenny Odom. Fulton County Health Board Chairman Edward “Jack” Hardin wrote that he is also worried about people congregating in parks and on the BeltLine, but he suggested leaving the decision to someone else.

“We can let the lawyers tell us if we need more specificity,” wrote Hardin, who is also a lawyer.

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