A top aide’s comments have Gov. Brian Kemp's office grappling with backlash

Kemp faces backlash to aide’s criticism of local coronavirus response

Gov. Brian Kemp’s office on Sunday grappled with blowback from a top aide’s comments blasting local governments for “overreacting” to the coronavirus outbreak by enacting tougher restrictions on movement and commerce than those called for by the governor.

Local leaders and some state Democrats said they felt blindsided by the criticism from Kemp’s chief of staff, Tim Fleming, after the governor has repeatedly endorsed local stay-at-home orders and other steps to curb the virus’ spread.

The fallout occurred on the same day as President Donald Trump approved Georgia’s disaster declaration, clearing the way for more federal assistance.

And the virus’ spread has showed no signs of slowing. Georgia’s Department of Public Health on Sunday reported 2,683 confirmed cases in Georgia of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. That’s up nearly 10 percent from 2,446 cases on Saturday. The total number of confirmed deaths rose by four from a day earlier, to 83.

Map: Coronavirus cases in Georgia

Dashboard: COVID-19 stats in Georgia

A sign encourages those using the Atlanta Beltline trail to maintain six feet of distance on Sunday. Curtis Compton / ccompton@ajc.com
Photo: Curtis Compton/Curtis Compton

Kemp so far has balked at tighter statewide restrictions such as a shelter-in-place mandate or an order halting dine-in service at all Georgia restaurants. But local leaders have said they appreciated the governor’s frequent remarks supporting mayors’ and county commissioners’ embrace of steeper restrictions.

Last week saw a cascade of local political leaders imposing restrictions on in-person dining, closing businesses not deemed essential and banning large gatherings of people.

“It’s one thing to push responsibility onto local government,” said state Rep. Josh McLaurin, D-Sandy Springs. “It’s a more unbelievable thing to criticize them for acting.”

It’s unclear which local governments Fleming targeted, and the governor’s office didn’t elaborate. In his Facebook post late Saturday, Fleming said “doomsday” models of the disease’s path has led to “people panicking and local governments across our state overreacting.”

“As a result of their overreach, many small businesses will struggle and some will not reopen,” Fleming said.

Another Kemp adviser, Jeremy Brand, a consultant who has no official role in the administration, said broadly that Georgians should recognize how quickly public officials exert authority “sometimes based on nothing more than hysteria.”

The remarks triggered confusion and dismay among some local officials.

“Is it too much to ask for some consistency within and out of the governor’s office?” said Andy Bauman, a Sandy Springs councilman. “C’mon ladies and gentlemen, let’s all get on the same page.”

‘Stringent action’

The comments from Kemp confidantes punctuate a week in which the governor has ordered new steps to combat the disease that have stopped short of the more severe restrictions many of his critics want him to impose.

In the last six days, the governor has ordered that schools remained close through late April, banned many gatherings, shut down bars and nightclubs, authorized health officials to shutter businesses that don’t enforce social distancing and urged “medically fragile” and certain others to stay home.

Related: Study: Georgia COVID-19 pandemic to peak week of April 22

More: Complete coronavirus coverage

Traffic is light on I-20 West where a DOT sign encourages citizens to stay home, disinfect, and wash hands on Sunday. Curtis Compton / ccompton@ajc.com
Photo: Curtis Compton/Curtis Compton

Kemp took another step on Sunday, announcing the state Department of Natural Resources will enforce restrictions on gatherings of 10 or more people in state parks and lakes. The move followed reports of large gatherings of boaters on Lakes Oconee and Sinclair in middle Georgia.

Kemp spokeswoman Candice Broce said the administration will continue to support local governments if they decide to pursue more “stringent action,” despite Fleming’s remarks.

“They know their communities. We continue to offer and deploy resources. Ask Dougherty County and Albany officials. Ventilators, bed space, staff, supplies — we’re getting more and sharing with those in need,” she said.

Fleming, a former Newton County commissioner, was critical of how local governments decide which businesses are “essential” and which are not during a public health emergency.

TIm Fleming, chief of staff for Gov. Brian Kemp (Photo from Governor’s Office public website)
Photo: georgia.gov

“Local governments have now begun to cherry pick what businesses will remain open,” he wrote on Facebook.

Doraville Mayor Joseph Geierman said the order to close some businesses in his city, ban in-person dining and issue a shelter-in-place order was “a very, very difficult decision.”

“No one came to us with a doomsday model and said, ‘You need to do this, or else Y is going to happen,’” he said. “… All of us are very aware of how it’s going to hurt our local economy.”

Others applauded Kemp’s stance.

Walton County Commission Chairman Kevin Little said Sunday tighter restrictions aren’t yet needed in his northeast Georgia community.

“I’m not really big on government control and government telling you what to do,” he said, adding: “We just really don’t want to draw Walton County to a complete halt economically.”

‘Totally different level’

The Georgia Municipal Association pressed hundreds of mayors to declare a public health emergency and take far-reaching steps to restrict mobility. As cities and counties imposed new restrictions, it’s left a patchwork of rules across the state.

It’s also led to mounting pushback from some health experts and politicians. House Speaker David Ralston, a Republican, and Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, a Democrat, are among the influential state leaders who have publicly urged Kemp to take more severe action.

“If we overreact, thank God we overreact,” Ralston said last week.

Customers wait in line to enter the Home Depot store at Midtown Place while the store limits the number of occupants to maintain six feet of space between shoppers and help prevent the spread of coronavirus on Sunday, March 29, 2020, in Atlanta. Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com
Photo: Curtis Compton/Curtis Compton

Broce said Fleming has fielded calls from mayors and county commissioners about how “confusing these local orders have become.”

Russell Edwards, a commissioner for the unified Athens-Clarke County government, said any confusion over the patchwork restrictions of local governments is a result of Kemp’s refusal to take statewide action.

“Don’t tell us one thing and then attack us for doing it,” said Edwards, who added that some of his constituents are using Fleming’s remarks to criticize Athens’ shelter-in-place restrictions.

“I’d surely like to know which experts Tim is referencing, because Georgia’s top doctors and epidemiologists are on a totally different level than Tim,” Edwards said.

Staff writer Asia Simone Burns contributed to this report.

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