Confusion surrounds Georgia’s coronavirus lockdown

Local officials left to ‘copy and paste’ Kemp’s order

You can still play golf.

You can still go to the beach. Or shop for groceries, get takeout from a restaurant, pick up medicine, see a doctor, exercise outdoors, and go to church.

You can even, in many instances, go to work.

So many loopholes reside in Gov. Brian Kemp’s statewide shelter-at-home order that many Georgians spent Friday in a state of confusion and disarray, trying to determine what is — and isn’t — allowed as the state combats the coronavirus pandemic. Some questioned whether the exceptions undermine the lockdown’s effectiveness.

"A set of uniform statewide policies earlier in this crisis would have been helpful, but that's not what happened," said Dr. Akshat Pujara, an Atlanta diagnostic radiologist who started a petition calling for Kemp to shut down the state. "So we have to move forward. We need to minimize the impact of the anticipated surge in cases."

In a briefing with reporters, Dr. Colleen Kraft, associate chief medical officer at Emory University Hospital, alluded to Kemp’s attempt to avert economic pain from the outbreak.

“Every governor … has different situations to balance in their leadership,” Kraft said, “and so this is what happens when you are trying to balance a number of different situations and populations in your state.”

Kemp’s executive order took effect Friday evening, more than one month after Georgia confirmed its first cases of the new coronavirus and weeks after many other governors shut down nonessential businesses in their states and instructed residents to stay home.

The new rules took effect shortly before state officials announced that Georgia has 5,967 confirmed cases of the virus, up by more than 500 since Thursday. The death toll reached 198 on Friday, compared to 176 the previous day.

Among the fatalities was a metro Atlanta nurse who died Thursday, the Georgia Nurses Association reported. The association did not release personal information on the nurse or the hospital at which he or she worked. This apparently is the first death of a Georgia nurse from the new coronavirus.



Adding to the turmoil surrounding Kemp’s order was a provision that wiped out measures taken by cities and counties across Georgia since March 1 to slow the virus’ spread in their communities.

Local governments imposed curfews and shut down nonessential businesses. They closed public parks and suspended utility disconnections.

But local restrictions “can no longer be enforced unless they are exactly the same as the governor’s order,” said Kelli Bennett, communications director for the Georgia Municipal Association, which recently urged the state’s 538 cities to declare public health emergencies. “The only way a city is able to adopt its own ordinance is to copy and paste what the governor said.”

Cities and counties may take limited extra steps, such as closing parks, according to a statement by the Georgia attorney general’s office. However, local governments may not take action that “in any way conflicts, varies or differs” from the governor’s order, the statement said.

Kemp superseded local virus-control efforts not long after his chief of staff, Tim Fleming, complained in a social media post that local officials were “overreacting” to the outbreak and described their restrictions on businesses as “overreach.” Kemp’s aides have declined to say whether Fleming’s comments reflected the governor’s views.

Lawrenceville Mayor David Still said Friday that Kemp’s order disregarded the work of Gwinnett County and its 16 cities to adopt rules that made sense for their residents. Those rules closed many businesses where people tend to congregate.

“We respectfully request the governor to allow local governments, that are listening to our neighbors, the opportunity to enforce their own orders if they are more stringent,” Still said in an email. “Local governments are the boots on the ground, and we can quickly interpret and enforce our own emergency orders effectively.”

Kemp’s order, which remains in effect until at least April 13, closed entertainment venues such as theaters and amusement parks. It also shut down tattoo parlors, barber shops, hairdressing salons and similar businesses.

But any business that is engaged in “critical infrastructure” — described in broad categories such as finance, agriculture and “critical” manufacturing — may remain open. The governor recommended those businesses take precautions to protect workers.

Businesses considered “non-critical infrastructure” may engage only in “minimum basic operations” if they practice social distancing, allowing no more than 10 people to gather in one location and maintaining 6 feet between each person.

Those distinctions baffled some local officials.

“It’s kind of a weird time for us,” said Chris McGahee, Duluth’s director of economic development. “We’re sort of in an exploration phase at the moment.”

But Tucker Mayor Frank Auman praised Kemp for allowing many businesses to stay open.

“He did a great job not only attacking the virus at its root but at balancing civil liberties, individual responsibility and the economic calamity that could be awaiting us at the end of the crisis if we’re not mindful of it now,” Auman said in a video address to the city’s residents.

How strictly Kemp’s order will be enforced is also uncertain. On Wednesday, when he announced his intent to issue the order, Kemp said state law enforcement officers would take “appropriate action to ensure full compliance — no exceptions.”

On Friday, the governor deputized county sheriffs to enforce the business regulations contained in his order. His office said state Department of Natural Resources officers and others would enforce social distancing on the state's beaches, which remain open.

Restrictions on individuals will be enforced primarily by the Georgia State Patrol, said Candice Broce, a spokeswoman for Kemp. Under state law, disobeying an emergency order is a misdemeanor that can be punished by a $1,000 fine and a year in jail.

Lt. Stephanie Stallings, a spokeswoman for the State Patrol, said troopers would not set up checkpoints or make traffic stops to determine whether people had legitimate reasons to be away from home.

“This is not a ticket-writing effort,” Stallings said. “We want it to be as a last resort that someone will be charged with violating this order.”

It’s hard to issue a citation or make an arrest while practicing social distancing, she said.

“The hope,” she said, “is we don’t have to interact with anybody over this order.”

Staff writers Greg Bluestein, Arielle Kass, Helena Oliviero, Tyler Estep and Ariel Hart contributed to this article.