How the coronavirus is upending Georgia’s politics

State Reps. Steven Sainz of Woodbine and Vance Smith of Pine Mountain bump elbows before Crossover Day began Thursday at the state Capitol. Later in the day, Georgia lawmakers suspended the legislative session because of the coronavirus pandemic. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
State Reps. Steven Sainz of Woodbine and Vance Smith of Pine Mountain bump elbows before Crossover Day began Thursday at the state Capitol. Later in the day, Georgia lawmakers suspended the legislative session because of the coronavirus pandemic. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

The coronavirus pandemic has upended Georgia politics as candidates and state leaders race to keep ahead of the outbreak.

On Thursday, Georgia lawmakers abruptly suspended the legislative session. Candidates canceled events and announced they would no longer hit the campaign trail. And the Democratic Party of Georgia scrapped a major fundraiser that would have featured former Vice President Joe Biden.

“We are in uncharted territory,” state Rep. Andy Welch said of the extraordinary series of events.

The rat-tat-tat of developments unfurled a day after President Donald Trump imposed travel restrictions to try to contain the spread of the virus, which has sickened more than 1,000 people across the country and claimed its first fatality in Georgia on Thursday.

As the stock market tumbled and sports leagues scuttled seasons, Georgia candidates swiftly rolled back their public schedules. U.S. Senate candidate Jon Ossoff canceled a Savannah town hall meeting planned for this weekend, and other contenders went a step further.

"I am suspending all in-person canvassing on the campaign until further notice," said Nabilah Islam, one of several Democrats running in Georgia's 7th Congressional District.

“Our grassroots campaign relies heavily on person-to-person contact,” Islam said, “but I cannot in good faith ask our campaign staff or volunteers to knock on doors – nor do I feel safe canvassing in person myself.”

03/12/2020 -- Atlanta, Georgia -- Georgia Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan (center) speaks with Senate majority leader Mike Dugan (left), R - Carrollton, and Senate minority leader Steve Henson (right), D-Stone Mountain, before presenting a suspension to the legislative session until further notice due to coronavirus during the Georgia Legislatures Crossover day, Thursday, March 12, 2020. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)
03/12/2020 -- Atlanta, Georgia -- Georgia Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan (center) speaks with Senate majority leader Mike Dugan (left), R - Carrollton, and Senate minority leader Steve Henson (right), D-Stone Mountain, before presenting a suspension to the legislative session until further notice due to coronavirus during the Georgia Legislatures Crossover day, Thursday, March 12, 2020. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

DeKalb County Sheriff Melody Maddox took a similar path, canceling all her fundraising events, meet-and-greet activities and door-to-door canvassing — along with a March 24 primary night party.

“We are going to campaign responsibly and will continue to put DeKalb first,” the sheriff said.

U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler, who days ago held her first major campaign event, postponed other rallies. And Dr. Michelle Au, a Democratic candidate for the state Senate, said she’ll no longer hold any in-person events “out of a sense of personal responsibility.”

“Over the next few weeks, I may also be busier at the hospital caring for patients,” said Au, an anesthesiologist, “but my resolve to lead Georgia to a healthier future won’t be interrupted.”

The Georgia GOP, meanwhile, said it will move forward with county conventions scheduled for next week. But party Chairman David Shafer urged attendees to take safety precautions and skip the gatherings if they feel ill, and he advised county leaders to keep the meetings succinct.

With a March 24 presidential primary looming, candidates quickly had to shuffle plans. The Democratic Party of Georgia postponed an annual fundraiser that Biden was set to headline March 21, and Vermont U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders’ campaign ditched a celebration to christen its first Atlanta office.

Some politicians already cast ahead to the next round of votes — the May 19 primary that will begin to set the field of candidates for every state and congressional race on the ballot in November.

Carolyn Bourdeaux, another Democrat running in the 7th District, called on state officials to administer the May 19 election by mail if the coronavirus crisis grows worse.

“It’s pretty simple,” she said. “Voting shouldn’t put your health at risk.”

Then there were those who tried to make the most of a bad situation.

U.S. Rep. Doug Collins was forced to “self-quarantine” himself Monday after he was informed he had interacted two weeks ago with someone at a conservative conference who had tested positive for the coronavirus.

From his Gainesville home on Tuesday, the congressman held court on Facebook Live for about 40 minutes and recorded Skype interviews with television outlets and Fox News, giving him a free media boost for his U.S. Senate campaign.

Still, he also had to face questions from worried residents. Asked by WRBL whether residents in Columbus who recently shook his hand should be worried, Collins tried to calm their concerns.

“They are fine,” he said.

In Other News