Gov. Brian Kemp on Thursday ordered Georgians to stay at home, with few exceptions, until at least April 13 to help curb the ever-worsening spread of the novel coronavirus.
Issuing a shelter-in-place mandate that temporarily alters the daily lives of the state’s 10.6 million residents, Kemp abandoned his earlier declarations that the coronavirus pandemic did not require the extreme measures in Georgia that more than three dozen other states had already dictated.
Kemp instructed Georgians to isolate themselves except for “essential services,” such as buying groceries and medicines, seeking medical care or traveling to jobs required for “minimum basic operations” and “critical infrastructure.” He did not define jobs matching that description.
Kemp’s executive order, which takes effect Friday, represented a dramatic reversal for a governor who had said local officials knew best how to combat the virus in their communities. But many of those officials, along with public health experts, complained that a patchwork of local social-distancing measures in parts of Georgia could not prevent widespread infections of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
Even after Kemp relented, he was widely mocked for saying he had just learned that people infected with COVID-19 could transmit the disease even if they were not exhibiting symptoms.
“These individuals could have been infecting people before they ever felt bad,” Kemp said during a news conference Wednesday, when he announced his intent to impose the shelter-at-home requirement. “We didn’t know that until the last 24 hours.”
But documents obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution show state officials were warned about so-called community transmission as early as March 2. That same day, Kemp announced the first two confirmed cases of the virus.
Georgia had 5,444 confirmed cases by Thursday evening, an increase of 696 in one day, according to the state Department of Public Health. The death toll reached 176, versus 154 the previous day.
In Albany, the southwest Georgia city with the highest concentration of illnesses and deaths, the virus' victims include Dougherty County Probate Judge Nancy Stephenson. She served for 27 years and was widely known across the community.
“It’s devastating,” Dougherty County Coroner Michael Fowler said. “She swore into office most of the public officials. She’s married a lot of people.”
Kemp’s shelter-in-place order, released late Thursday, does not distinguish between “essential” and “nonessential” businesses, as many other states and local governments do. Instead, he directed that for businesses to remain open, they must screen workers for a fever over 100.4 degrees, cough or shortness of breath — all symptoms of the coronavirus — and must provide them with protective gear.
Kemp mandated the closure of recreational facilities, such as gyms, bowling alleys, live performance venues and amusement parks. But he allowed restaurants to continue offering carry-out and delivery service. In an earlier order, Kemp had shut down bars and nightclubs.
The governor’s order did not directly address church services. Kemp has publicly wrestled over whether to impose stiff limits on houses of worship, although he has suggested they conduct their services online.
The new statewide rules override the patchwork of restrictions that local governments adopted over the past few weeks. That means more stringent or lenient rules adopted by some cities and counties are no longer in place.
Kemp made no public statement on the new order on Thursday. A spokeswoman said the governor changed his position on a statewide lockdown because of recommendations from public health officials, projections that showed Georgia needed more time to prepare for a surge in hospitalizations, and “the recognition of heightened levels of community transmission.”
“This decision, like all of his decisions to date, was guided not by politics, public opinion or pressure by the media but by data, science and experts on the state and federal level,” spokeswoman Candice Broce said.
At his news conference Wednesday, Kemp said the virus “is now transmitting before people see signs,” information he described as “a game changer.”
But public health officials have said for weeks that infected people could spread the virus even if they were not obviously ill.
And on March 2, a month before Kemp issued the stay-at-home order, two top state officials received a warning about the dangers posed by people who did not display symptoms of the virus.
Pinar Keskinocak, a systems engineering professor who runs Georgia Tech’s Center for Health and Humanitarian Systems, wrote an email arguing that “educating the public and encouraging ‘voluntary quarantine’ is very important to slow down the spread of the disease.” Keskinocak advises governments on dealing with epidemics and other health catastrophes.
“This encourages staying away from others even if a person may not be experiencing symptoms themselves, but a family member does,” she wrote. “Why? Because there is a strong chance that a person could be infected but asymptomatic, but could still infect others.”
Among the officials who received the email were Dr. Kathleen Toomey, the state’s public health commissioner, and Homer Bryson, the director of the Georgia Emergency Management Agency.
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
The Journal-Constitution obtained this and other emails through a public records request.
“This has been a concern to many of us who work in this area,” Keskinocak said in an interview. Computer models showed the effectiveness of social distancing, she said.
Following Keskinocak’s email, state officials played down the potential for the virus’ spread. In a statement on March 5, for instance, GEMA said that “at this time, the risk of transmission is LOW,” a sentiment repeated by the governor’s office two days later.
After Kemp’s announcement Wednesday, politicians and others ridiculed his assertion that new information had informed his decision.
U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut, cited Kemp’s statements while calling for a national program of testing for the virus and tracing and quarantining patients.
“Governors and mayors aren’t public health experts,” Murphy wrote on Twitter, “and Kemp isn’t alone in totally misunderstanding the science and making fatal mistakes as a consequence.”
But President Donald Trump defended Kemp during a coronavirus briefing in Washington.
“He’s a good governor,” Trump said. “Brian’s a great governor. It’s his decision. Ultimately, he decided to go along with it. And they’re doing well.”
Staff writer Brad Schrade contributed to this article.