Georgia seeks small business relief from feds amid coronavirus pandemic

Gov. Brian Kemp said Tuesday that the Small Business Administration could soon open a spigot of loans for Georgia businesses struggling with losing customers and cash amid escalating restrictions aimed at containing coronavirus.

The governor's office submitted paperwork to the agency seeking a disaster declaration that could clear the way for loans and financial relief to help struggling business owners finance operating expenses and other debts.

“It is clear that there have been significant economic damages to countless businesses across the state, and it is expected that these conditions (will) persist for weeks to come,” wrote Kemp in his appeal to federal officials.

The move came days after the governor declared a public health emergency, which gave him expanded authority to respond to an illness that's sickened at least 146 in Georgia and killed one.

At a briefing streamed online, Kemp said the new authority would help alleviate medical supply shortages and prioritize hospital bed space that will be squeezed by a rush of new cases.

“That’s a serious concern, probably one of my biggest,” said Kemp, who spoke in a live-stream video from a conference room at the state Capitol because his aides  wanted to limit the governor’s possible exposure to the disease.

In other updates, the governor said the state’s top attorney is investigating at least 29 cases of price gouging, mostly involving food and water. The state has also received reports of labs charging up to $300 for testing the illness.

A new "quarantine space" at the Georgia Public Safety Training Center in Monroe County should be nearly complete by the week's end, and state emergency chief Homer Bryson said 20 trailers should be delivered to the site by Friday.

The governor said 124 more cruise ship passengers who were quarantined at Dobbins Air Reserve Base are set to be transferred Tuesday to Delaware, Illinois and Indiana. All 31 Georgians at the facility have already returned home, but more than 100 others still await transfer.

And late Tuesday, Kemp said on Twitter that Quest Diagnostics delivered 500 test kits to a state warehouse, and that public health officials will extend the licenses for 3,396 medics that were set to lapse at the end of the month.

Medical personnel discuss patients that had been admitted for testing for the coronavirus at the entrance Central Maine Medical Center on Friday, March 13, 2020, in Lewiston, Maine. U.S. hospitals are setting up circus-like triage tents, calling doctors out of retirement, guarding their supplies of face masks and making plans to cancel elective surgery as they brace for an expected onslaught of coronavirus patients. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

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Georgia has ordered a heap of supplies from vendors, including more than 100,000 masks, 10 pallets of medical face shields, 25,000 gowns and 1,000 goggles, Kemp said. The state has also requested 36 public health officers from Washington.

The timing for the delivery is not immediately certain, Kemp said.

Dr. Kathleen Toomey, the head of Georgia’s Public Health Department, said the state will soon boost testing capacity with “additional materials and additional staff,” though she didn’t specify how broadly the scope will expand.

Toomey said Emory Healthcare will also have rapid testing available “shortly,” but she added that Georgia still doesn’t have enough testing capacity to screen people who have mild symptoms of the illness, which often is characterized by fever and dry coughs.

“We don’t want to expose others in emergency rooms, in primary care practices,” she said, adding that Georgia is scrambling to set up testing capabilities across the state’s health districts.

“If I can get through one message, the most important thing is don’t just go to your emergency room or primary care provider for testing,” she said, encouraging Georgians to call ahead to health care providers.

Kemp delivered his own sobering message, urging Georgians to keep their distance, stay home if they can and heed other precautions from health care professionals.

“These are really abnormal circumstances and we’re going to have to work through it,” he said. “We’re all in this together.”