Banned funerals, shuttered shops: Local leaders confront global virus

When the month of March began, Cobb County Chairman Mike Boyce’s focus was on upcoming town hall events meant to garner support for a transportation sales tax.

Spring festivals and the primary election were on the horizon. The Braves were set to start their fourth season just a stone’s throw away from the Cobb Galleria.

As the month draws to a close, Boyce finds himself on the front lines of a global pandemic.

He's declared a state of emergency in the county, banned large public gatherings, restricted hours for all businesses not deemed essential and, under pressure from the federal government, reopened a controversial medical equipment sterilization plant that emits cancer-causing gases.

A virus that once loomed as a remote threat has taken root in Georgia. It’s a scenario long feared by county and city leaders around the state, but never experienced.

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Though not as deadly as Ebola, and not yet as pervasive as smallpox and the Spanish flu, the new coronavirus’ relentless spread has derailed all that is ordinary. Along the way, it’s pushed local officials into the challenging and unfamiliar role of balancing threats to lives against threats to livelihood.

In a 14-day span in Georgia, Savannah Mayor Van Johnson canceled St. Patrick's Day festivities, one of the city's biggest money makers; Fulton County Schools Superintendent Mike Looney shuttered schools to protect the community; Glynn County Commission Chairman Mike Browning reluctantly closed Brunswick's beaches ahead of the lucrative spring break season; Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms shut down restaurant dining rooms and bars along with gyms and movie theaters; Decatur Mayor Patti Garrett ordered residents to stay at home.

Few of them imagined themselves in this moment as the year dawned.

“It’s been a grueling two weeks,” said Boyce.

As a retired Marine colonel who served in Iraq, he is no stranger to crisis. Nevertheless, the coronavirus pandemic has challenged the military man used to leading from the front.

Boyce is 70. That alone, public health experts say, puts him in a group vulnerable to the virus. Still, he said, managing the county’s emergency response is his job.

“I’m at the top of the pyramid, and I just have to be out there. And, by being out there, I expose myself to the virus,” he said. “There’s just certain responsibilities that have to be done in person.”

Still, he said, “Of course I’m worried. I’m in that age group.”

Powder Springs Mayor Al Thurman knows what can happen if people don’t keep their guards up. He recently lost a cousin in New York to COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

“We were born the same year in the same month,” said Thurman, age 65. “Apparently, she didn’t take this virus seriously, and she went to a bingo outing.”

It was there, he said, that she was infected.

Powder Springs was among the first jurisdictions in Cobb to declare a state of emergency, allowing officials to limit business operations.

READ | Coronavirus causing 'drastic employee shortage' in Fulton courts

Thurman said he knew it had to be done, but it wasn’t an easy decision. “Some of these businesses may not be able to survive this.”

That’s a reality weighing on Sandy Springs Mayor Rusty Paul, too. “A lot of these businesses, particularly restaurants we’re closing, will never come back,” he said. He’s even had to shut down beloved parks to enforce social distancing.

Some constituents understand. Some don’t.

“Closing city parks is absolutely absurd!” one commenter wrote below a Facebook video of Paul explaining his actions. “We all need sunshine and fresh air.”

This is the type of crisis that can grind down a leader, Paul said, which his why he’s forcing himself to take one day off a week. A couple of times, he’s made the two-hour drive to his family farm in northern Alabama to tend to his beehives. The drive helps, but his thoughts still comes back to the effect of business closures on his community, the lives that are possibly being ruined.

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

He also tries to keep in mind the lives he might be saving. “Every moment you delay, the disease is spreading,” said Paul.

Several officials cited a phone call organized by the Georgia Municipal Association last week during which Dr. Carlos del Rio, executive associate dean for Emory at Grady, warned local leaders in the starkest terms what could be in store if they failed to take COVID-19 seriously.

“Healthcare systems have been rapidly overwhelmed, and we’re not even at the top of this epidemic,” del Rio told them. “This is going to be long— three to four months—and there will be significant pain.”

The doctor compared the infection rate to a plane taking off from the runway: “Once the nose goes up, before you know it, you’re at 30,000 feet.”

READ | Coronavirus-related impacts shake Atlanta's economy

Without a doubt, when businesses are forced to close, people will be financially injured, del Rio acknowledged. But, he said, “The economic impact of not doing it is going to be worse.”

Loganville Mayor Rey Martinez had to shut down his own catering business to comply with recommendations from public health officials. And, while he’ll take a financial hit, he said it was clearly the right thing to do. The businesses in his community that remain in operation need to do the right thing, too, he said, like enforcing social distancing.

“I’m not a shy mayor. When I go out on my own, I’m constantly looking at what’s going on. And I don’t mind telling the manager, ‘Hi, it’s Mayor Martinez. We got people waiting in line to pay; can you please enforce that six-foot space?’” he said.

It’s not exactly what Martinez imagined himself doing as mayor. None of this is what officials imagined when they got into local politics, said Dougherty County Commission Chris Cohilas.

An attorney, he ran for the office to improve services, lower taxes and fix potholes.

Now he and his commissioners in the southwest Georgia county are trying to address the highest number of cases per capita in the state.

Instead of his community being able to come together to mourn the people who have died from COVID-19, county officials have been forced to institute policies that allow for only graveside services and no more than 10 mourners.

“It’s absolutely gross to have to make those decisions,” said Cohilas.

READ | Ga. inmate dies from COVID-19 as outbreak worsens at prison

And it’s draining, he said. To try to keep himself healthy, he doubles up on vitamins, practices yoga and takes daily ice baths that he believes boost his immune system.

There’s an added pressure on Bianca Motley Broom, who’s still learning to negotiate the inner workings of government.

About the time the virus first emerged in Wuhan, China, in December, she was elected the first new mayor of College Park in a quarter-century.

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

Her administration on Wednesday issued a two-week order for residents to stay at home because many residents there, like residents elsewhere, were not following the advice of public health authorities to avoid crowds.

“I didn’t imagine that I would be handling these types of things so early into my tenure,” she said. “But, every time that we are making a decision of this magnitude, I am considering that we have moms, dads, grandparents, kids.”

Motley Broom, a professional mediator, said she is happy to shoulder the responsibility, but she wishes the state was doing a better job of coordinating. Municipalities have been left to pass rushed and inconsistent rules, she said.

The first coronavirus curfew issued in metro Atlanta, in the city of South Fulton, was hastily written by the city attorney in the middle of a meeting.

With not yet even 100 days under her belt, Motley Broom said she had sleepless nights last week and expects to have more — but that’s the job.

“I didn’t anticipate this particular situation, but I did sign up for it,” she said. “What keeps me up is thinking about our residents, but also working out all of the different scenarios and outcomes that could happen as a result of the decisions we make.”

Hear from leaders…

Leaders across the state are making hard decisions as they try to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

On constituents reactions to social distancing: "'What is this thing called social distancing?' 'What do you mean I can't shake a person's hand?'" she recalls people asking during a meeting. "There were a lot of things we did not have answers to, and some things we still don't have answers to. We're planning now for what the new norm is going to be." Henry County Manager Cheri Hobson-Matthews.

On making the decision to bar dining at restaurants: "My thought is that the sooner you do it, the sooner you can come out of it. In a lot of ways, it's bringing the community together." Brookhaven Mayor John Ernst, who's also homeschooling two sons.

On the Glynn County Commission's decision to shut down beaches during spring break, possibly knee-capping his the tourism economy: "People (are) asking us to do something only because the next county over did it. Now what kind of science is that? … I think it's ironic you have elected people not in the health-care industry making decisions. I can see it's fallen in our lap." Mike Browning, chairman of the Glynn County Board of Commissioners.

On having to tell his four children that he canceled baseball season: "It's about like telling a group of kindergartners there's no Santa Claus, but it's necessary." Dougherty County Commission Chris Cohilas.

On telling those in the service industry that they need to limit the number of customers in their buildings or shut down: "They depend on tips, so now that's not happening." Vince Williams, mayor of southern Fulton's Union City and vice president of the Georgia Municipal Authority.