Debate escalates over social distancing in Georgia

Confirmed COVID-19 cases in state top 1,000 and 38 deaths reported

As the coronavirus outbreak crossed a significant threshold in Georgia on Tuesday, Gov. Brian Kemp again refused to order the drastic social-distancing measures that experts say are essential to containing the pandemic.

With confirmed cases now topping 1,000 statewide, public health physicians and other medical professionals called on Kemp to close nonessential businesses and order Georgians to remain at home until the virus subsides, a strategy adopted by governors of several other hard-hit states.

And in an implicit rebuke to Kemp, the Georgia Municipal Association urged all of the state’s 538 cities to use their “inherent police powers” to impose the tough restrictions that the governor has resisted.

By day’s end, Georgia cities large and small — Atlanta and Savannah, Chamblee and Smyrna, among others — had adopted shelter-at-home requirements, underscoring the urgency of responding to the virus.

“There is no time to lose as COVID-19 advances quickly and relentlessly across the state,” Dr. Carlos Del Rio, who oversees Emory University physicians at Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta, wrote on Twitter, referring to the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

» AJC COMPLETE COVERAGE: Coronavirus in Georgia

A lockdown would allow for additional testing and isolation of people who might be infected and would give hospitals time to prepare for an inevitable surge of patients, Del Rio said later Tuesday in a video on Emory’s Facebook page.

“Erase April from the calendar,” he said. “In one month, we would be able to open the country, open the economy. We could start emerging out of this in a month.”

But President Donald Trump and other Republicans say the economic damage from a lockdown would be too great a price for stopping the coronavirus. On Fox News, Trump said he would “love to have the country opened up, and just raring to go, by Easter” — less than three weeks away, on April 12. Although the government’s public health experts say that’s too soon to turn back the coronavirus, Trump added, “I think it’s possible, why not?”

Kemp said in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the less-drastic measures he already has announced may be adequate to curb the coronavirus’ spread.

» AJC INTERVIEW: Kemp says he still has 'arrows left in the quiver' to fight coronavirus

On Monday, Kemp signed an executive order closing bars and nightclubs and banning public gatherings of 10 or more people without adequate social distancing. He also ordered medically fragile Georgians to stay home and authorized shutting down any business — or church — that doesn’t comply with the restrictions on public gatherings.

“You have to have the citizens go with you when you make those moves,” Kemp said in the interview. “I certainly don’t feel like we’re there.”

A full shutdown “would have devastated a lot of people, literally decades of what they have built up,” Kemp said. “A lot of people are acting responsibly.”

He acknowledged the calls for a lockdown. But he said some Georgians are still “doubting the effects of the coronavirus” — doubts fueled by Trump and others who initially labeled the warnings of a pandemic a “hoax” perpetrated by Democrats and the news media.

Kemp spoke a few hours before state health officials announced that confirmed coronavirus cases had crossed the 1,000 mark.

By late Tuesday, the total stood at 1,097, with 38 deaths, an increase of 12 in a single day. Officials said 361 people are hospitalized across the state with COVID-19.

People have died in the state’s cities and in some of its most rural regions. On Tuesday, state officials reported two deaths in southwest Georgia’s Terrell County, population 8,700.

One was a 75-year-old man who died March 21 at Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital in Albany, said James Hamby, the Terrell County coroner. The other was a 73-year-old woman who died as an ambulance rushed her to the hospital, Hamby said.

Hamby is waiting for lab results to confirm a third COVID-19 death in the county and said numerous residents are hospitalized with the disease. He’s expecting the worst.

“I don’t believe we know what number we’re going to be at in two weeks,” he said. “We hope the good Lord steps in and helps.”

Confirmed cases have multiplied as testing has accelerated and as state-run and commercial laboratories have ramped up capacity. The state public health lab is now processing 150 tests a day, up from 50 a day last week.

» DETAILS: A map of coronavirus cases in Georgia (updated March 24)

State officials “have to make a decision pretty quickly whether you do a stand-down order, a stay-at-home order,” said Kenneth Thorpe, the Robert W. Woodruff Professor at Emory’s Rollins School of Public Health and an assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services during President Bill Clinton’s administration.

“Obviously, the longer we wait on this, the more cases we’re going to have,” Thorpe said. If Kemp intends to force Georgians to stay home, “it’s probably a good time to do it.”

Kemp said he welcomed the tougher restrictions imposed by local governments, praising Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, with whom he spoke several times before she signed a shelter-in-place order for the state’s largest city.

Bottoms ordered all but essential businesses in the city to close for 14 days and directed residents to generally remain at home. She allowed several exceptions to the shelter-at-home requirement, however: obtaining some city services and going to grocery stores, gas stations, pharmacies, laundromats, parks, the Atlanta Beltline and restaurants serving takeout food.

Kemp said he isn’t worried that communities across the state are creating a patchwork of restrictions. While the municipal association urged consistent action, the Association County Commissioners of Georgia said a statewide mandate was unnecessary.

Kemp could issue additional orders in response to the virus. For instance, he said he had considered prohibiting hospitals from performing elective surgeries to conserve medical supplies. So far, he has merely recommended that they stop.

“That’s why I’m just urging citizens to buckle down for the next two weeks,” Kemp said. “I feel like if we can do that and get the upper hand on this thing, we’ll be in good shape. If that changes, we’ve got arrows left in the quiver.”