Athens offers a glimpse of challenges awaiting Georgia under shelter in place orders

ATHENS — The serene parks along the Oconee River are closed. The once vibrant downtown is now populated by a skeleton crew of restaurateurs. And a mandatory shelter in place has been in effect for nearly two weeks, long before many metro Atlanta towns took similar steps.

Athens-Clarke County enacted some of the most severe restrictions in the state to combat the coronavirus, earning the praise of public health experts and the enmity of some business owners and other critics who see an overreaction.

The aggressive approach put Gov. Brian Kemp at odds with the more liberal local officials who lead his hometown — at least until his decision Wednesday to call for a statewide shelter in place that echoes the policy in Athens.

And the community’s response to the strict orders over nearly two weeks offers a glimpse of the challenges communities across Georgia will soon face as new statewide rules take effect Friday requiring more people to stay home.

“I never imagined that the crisis would come so soon and for all of us,”  said Janet Geddis, who voluntarily closed her store, Avid Bookshop, even before the restrictions but has remained a forceful supporter of the tough mandates to contain the disease.

The county adopted its emergency ordinance on March 19, shortly after health officials reported the fifth confirmed case of COVID-19 in Athens-Clarke County. Since then, thousands in the state have been sickened by the illness, and it’s linked to five deaths in Athens.

The rules essentially ban residents from leaving their homes unless they do so for essential purposes, and when they do, they must maintain social distancing. A wide berth of activities qualify as essential actions, including exercise, work responsibilities, and obtaining groceries and supplies.

What's defined as essential, however, has also sparked a debate — and court action — over whether the rules go too far in determining what businesses can stay open and which ones must close their doors.

MORE: A map of coronavirus cases in Georgia

MORE: Real-time stats and the latest news on the coronavirus outbreak

The changes were approved by a group of assertive local commissioners who won election after a political upheaval two years ago that ushered in more liberal leaders — and tossed out more mainstream Democrats who long dominated the town's politics.

04/01/2020 - Atlanta, Georgia  - Gov. Brian Kemp (center) speaks during a press conference at Liberty Plaza, across the street from the Georgia State Capitol building, in downtown Atlanta, Wednesday, April 1, 2020. During the presser, Gov. Kemp ordered all Georgia K-12 schools to be closed until the end of the academic school year. He also said he will sign an order on Thursday forcing a "Stay-at-home" order for all Georgians until April 13.  (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

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Credit: Alyssa Pointer

And they used their pulpit to encourage Kemp, who launched his political career in this community of roughly 120,000 nearly two decades ago, to take more drastic measures to curb a disease that’s sickened thousands of Georgians.

“Kemp is about a week behind Athens. Why wait? What expert advocates incrementalism to fight a pandemic?” said Russell Edwards, one of the newly elected commissioners. “I’m not aware of any expert that advocates incrementalism. Slowly adopted protective measures lead to more deaths.”

‘What they think is right’

The governor shuttered bars, canceled public school through late April and urged the "medically fragile" to shelter in place. But until this week, he balked at more sweeping measures because of worries they could cripple the economy in areas with no confirmed cases of the virus.

Kemp has instead given local leaders leeway to take more severe steps, though he suggested in a recent interview that the measures in Athens weren’t as strict as they might seem.

"Where I live, Athens-Clarke County, passed a shelter-in-place, but they're not enforcing it. So it sounds good politically, and I'm sure that when people on the TV networks over there hear that, they think, 'Well, boy, they're really taking action,' " Kemp told WJBF, an Augusta television station. "But when you look at it, they're not doing much more than we are."

Athens Mayor Kelly Girtz said police officers and code enforcement officials are fanning out to warn residents to abide by the restrictions, whether on “street corners, basketball courts or businesses.” The city’s strategy, he said, matches the threat communities now face.

“What you do is important, and so is how you do it. I have a good relationship with the governor, although we have a different approach,” Girtz said. “I understand it’s different in other parts of the state. And I’ve told friends in other parts even if they don’t feel this crisis this minute, it’s coming.”

Since Athens instituted its emergency order, a hodgepodge of rural, urban and suburban counties have mirrored the county's policy — including some parts of the state where cases of the disease have not yet surfaced.

State Rep. Houston Gaines represents a stretch of territory that spans parts of Athens-Clarke and three other counties. Each has taken a different approach to curbing the spread of the virus.

“I live in Athens, and while the commission and I don’t always have the same political views, we’ve been in touch throughout,” said Gaines, a Republican. “I’m proud of the way our community has come together, and I truly believe everyone is making decisions based on what they think is right and will save the most lives.”

In Athens, the message appears to have taken root. Parks and trails had limited foot traffic even before they were shut down this week. The University of Georgia’s dorms are closed and many students have returned home; those who haven’t are holed up in apartments.

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Only a few scattered cars dotted the streets in the normally vibrant downtown, and a small staff at The Blind Pig restaurant delivered piping-hot wings and juicy burgers to a waiting group of couriers. A bartender juggled calls as she parceled out bags of food to each driver.

“All the food we make is with love, since orders are so few and far between,” she told a customer.

There was a marked decrease in mobility and nonessential travel in Athens over the past month, according to Unacast, a company that uses data from cellphones and other sources to give communities a social distancing score. Athens earned a "B-," compared with a "D" for the state of Georgia.

“It’s definitely weird,” said Megan Mittelhammer, a sophomore who is among droves of students who left Athens to return to their families’ homes. “We’re living through a major part of history. It might not feel like it, but we’ll look back at this someday and reflect — hopefully some time soon.”

A debate over power

There are many in the community, however, who worry that local officials are going overboard. David Stone, a painter who donned a surgical mask to take a walk on a path through the east side of town, said the lack of testing makes his anxiety sharpen.

“No one knows who has it and who doesn’t,” Stone said. “It seems to be that it’s overblown, but I still don’t know why we can’t find tests. It’s the greatest country in the world, but we can’t test our citizens. So we don’t even know if we have it or not.”

Across town at Clyde’s Armory, a towering sign outside the castlelike building exclaims: “YES, WE ARE OPEN.” Signs affixed to heaving gun vaults in the entryway warn the patrons who started crowding the parking lot before the store opened at 10 a.m. to wash their hands and avoid physical contact.

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The firearms store is permitted to stay open under county rules, and inside customers peruse rows of handguns, ammunition and other merchandise, such as a T-shirt with George Washington holding an assault rifle that says, “I’d like you to meet Martha.”

The owner of the store, Andrew Clyde, has emerged as one of the sharpest critics of the county’s coronavirus crackdown, filing a lawsuit that called the shelter-in-place ordinance an “abuse of police power” that lets politicians decide which businesses are considered “essential” and which are not.

Clyde, whose office sits in the back of the store, said it’s not enough to trust a local government’s “good intentions” in a time of crisis.

“It is when government claims it is well-intentioned that history shows we must be the most vigilant,” said Clyde, a Republican seeking an open U.S. House seat in northeast Georgia.

“Unfortunately,” he said, “our history is replete with examples where the government is trying to help and seeks to ignore our laws and abridge our liberties.”

Girtz and other city officials have dismissed the complaint as frivolous. He has backup from the likes of Geddis, the bookstore owner who worries about the fate of her business, which already runs on razor-thin margins, and others that give Athens a funky college town vibe.

But she’s not about to second-guess her decision to shut down her store or the vote by local officials to impose emergency restrictions more than a week before the state followed suit.

“The Athens mayor and commission’s decision to issue a shelter-in-place order not only saved lives,” she said, “it officially gave gravity to a situation that far too many people are taking lightly.”