Fairburn closes City Hall after employee tests positive for virus

Fairburn Mayor Elizabeth Carr-Hurst has come under fire for requiring city employees to come to work during the coronavirus pandemic. CURTIS COMPTON/CCOMPTON@AJC.COM
Fairburn Mayor Elizabeth Carr-Hurst has come under fire for requiring city employees to come to work during the coronavirus pandemic. CURTIS COMPTON/CCOMPTON@AJC.COM

A south metro city that has been criticized for its response to the COVID-19 pandemic closed City Hall on Friday after an employee tested positive for the virus.

Elected officials in Fairburn were informed of the positive test Friday and workers were told to report for mandatory coronavirus testing. The latest positive test result comes just days after first-term Mayor Elizabeth Carr-Hurst acknowledged in a City Council meeting Wednesday that two city firefighters also tested positive.

Carr-Hurst has taken heat for requiring city employees to physically report to work throughout the health crisis, but she defended her approach during the meeting.

“We have done everything within our power with this pandemic. This is a new thing for all of us,” she said. “It may be concerning to some people, but this is life as it is right now.”

Council member Linda Davis said she found out about the latest employee when Mayor Pro-Tem Ulysses Smallwood called her Friday. She told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that she didn’t know much more but was afraid of infections spreading in the south Fulton County bedroom community of 16,000 residents.

READ | Fairburn mayor loses council support over treatment of city workers

Davis said she understands the building will be sanitized, but she laid issues with the city’s approach to the virus at the feet of Carr-Hurst.

“We’re legislative and we try to stay in our lanes and everything, and that does not say or mean we don’t care about our employees. But the mayor’s the CEO and she handles all the administrative things,” Davis said.

Councilman Pat Pallend said the city has to do a better job protecting its workers and citizens.

“Health and safety must remain our highest priority, and we need to act immediately to address this situation,” he said.

City Hall has been closed to the public since March 18, but the mayor has required employees to come in. Some employees have reported to the AJC their concerns about the situation, but Carr-Hurst has denied any tension exists and has said employees don’t have to come in if they’re uncomfortable.

According to acity employee who asked not to be named for fear of reprisals, the woman who tested positive had been out sick since June 30 and was admitted to the hospital Monday. But there was no official communication from the mayor’s office until Friday morning.

“At this point it’s been eight days, the exposure for our families is already there,” the source said. “This cannot be another Cheryl thing.”

Cheryl Catron, a clerk with the Fairburn Police Department, died April 3 of complications of COVID-19 and diabetic ketoacidosis. Catron and many other city workers had been coming to work on their regular schedules even as other municipalities allowed employees to work remotely. Much larger cities, like South Fulton (home to 100,000 residents) and Alpharetta (population 67,000), have had a much smaller share of staff come in.

FROM APRIL | As Fairburn mourns loss of colleague, mayor defends order to work on

In a statement issued through a spokesman, Carr-Hurst said the COVID-19-positive employee was not running a fever on her last day at work and showed no signs of illness. Carr-Hurst wrote that the other 12 employees at City Hall had been tested and the building will remain closed until results come back after the weekend.

Carr-Hurst had rejected pleas from workers and her own city administrator to make work-at-home accommodations for the pandemic.

“The city has no ‘telework’ policy,” she said in a March 16 email to Administrator Dennis Stroud. “Systems must be in place in order for telework to be done efficiently.”

Stroud, who had a difficult relationship with the mayor, resigned two weeks later. He is the third city administrator to resign since Carr-Hurst took office in January 2018.

The AJC reported in late April that the city was developing a telework policy.

In Wednesday’s City Council meeting, Carr-Hurst said the city still has no policy allowing employees to work remotely, but one is under development.

FROM AUGUST | Mayor's approach, ethics roil Fairburn

“I hope to have a policy within the next month of two that we can live with,” she said. However, she added that some city workers must come into the office.

“I’m not going to put the city’s finances and some other issues at stake by allowing them to log into a computer from their home — especially our finances,” she said.

While the city has been slow to allow employees to work from home, Carr-Hurst has been quicker to counter criticism about the city's response to the virus. Last month, she cast the tie-breaking vote to hire a $30,000 image consultant, following an AJC investigation.

Later on in the Wednesday meeting, Fairburn joined a growing number of cities requiring people to wear masks in businesses — including grocery stores, pharmacies and restaurants — to slow the spread of the virus.

Credit: AJC

A number of doctors are becoming worried about the spike in COVID-19 cases.

Credit: AJC