Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp declared an unprecedented public health emergency Saturday.

Kemp declares public health emergency; 66 coronavirus cases in Ga. 

Gov. Brian Kemp declared an unprecedented public health emergency Saturday and said he would use the broad powers granted under the law to deploy “all available resources” to help contain the spread of coronavirus.

The declaration would give Kemp new abilities to suspend laws and regulations, take “direct operational control” of civil forces and mandate evacuations to cope with an outbreak that’s sickened at least 66 in Georgia and killed one. 

The powers also would give health authorities the ability to isolate or quarantine Georgians exposed to the disease, order vaccinations or other treatments, restrict travel into or within the state and limit or cancel public gatherings. 

» COMPLETE COVERAGE: Coronavirus in Georgia

“This public health emergency is unprecedented for the state of Georgia, and I do not take this action lightly,” said the governor, who steered clear of insisting that schools shut down but urged Georgians to “incorporate social distancing in their daily lives.”  

“Otherwise, we risk a run on critical resources for the sickest patients in our state,” he said during a somber speech in the state Capitol, livestreamed to the public because it was cordoned off to the media. “Now is the time to act.”

The governor said the declaration would immediately be used to help some nurses from other states get temporary licenses to practice in Georgia and lift restrictions on commercial truck drivers to let them continue stocking stores with supplies. 

More broadly, though, Kemp said the measures would “greatly assist health and emergency management officials across Georgia by deploying all available resources” to respond to  COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus. 

By the end of the day, he also authorized calling up as many as 2,000 Georgia National Guard troops to active duty to help transfer cruise ship passengers quarantined at Dobbins Air Reserve Base back to their homes and “ensure the steady supply of medical equipment, food, shelter, or related materials to keep Georgians safe.”

The public health emergency must still be ratified by lawmakers, who will return to the Capitol for an extraordinary special session Monday shortly after they suspended their work indefinitely amid a pandemic.

Georgia’s legislative leaders quickly signaled their bipartisan support. House Minority Leader Bob Trammell, the top Democrat in the chamber, said the emergency declaration would help Georgia swiftly respond to a “rapidly evolving” crisis. 

Still, some lawmakers cautioned Kemp to use restraint with his new powers, which also give the state authority to commandeer private property and effectively take control of hospitals if “reasonable and necessary” for the emergency response.

“These emergency powers will likely be granted with the expectation that Governor Kemp will act prudently and continue to act transparently,” said state Rep. Scott Holcomb, an Atlanta Democrat.

A growing crisis

The governor’s decision came as federal authorities announced new measures to respond to a pandemic that has fast transformed everyday life. 

Sports leagues suspended seasons, metro Atlanta schools shuttered classrooms, grocery store aisles were picked clean, clergy members canceled services, festivals and events were scrapped and Delta Air Lines announced the largest reduction of flights in its history. 

And late Saturday, Georgia's presidential primary was postponed roughly two months. 

Even Kemp’s press conference underscored the grim new reality. It was held in his ceremonial office in front of one TV camera and a handful of staff members “to ensure the health of staff and media personnel.” 

The state’s legal system, too, was upended. Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Harold Melton declared a statewide judicial emergency late Saturday, ordering courts and clerk’s offices to “suspend all but essential…functions” for at least 30 days.

The order says that courts should continue to address issues “necessary to protect health, safety and liberty of individuals” but otherwise limit operations.

That means issues like domestic abuse restraining orders; juvenile detention hearings; mental health commitment hearings; and bond reviews should be prioritized, the order said, and criminal trials already underway should continue until completed.

“To the extent court proceedings are held, they should be done in a manner to limit the risk of exposure, where possible, such as videoconferencing,” the order said.

New cases

After outlining the fast spread of the disease — including the doubling of cases in Bartow, Cobb and DeKalb overnight — Kemp said Georgia will increase its ability to test for the disease to 200 specimens a day by the end of the week. 

Georgia, like other states, had previously relied on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to run its coronavirus tests but started to process its own samples last week. 

Dr. Kathleen Toomey, who heads Georgia’s health department, said the state’s focus on testing “highest risk” patients has skewed the count of cases. She said recent additional shipments and more staffing has allowed the state to ramp up testing. 

“The more we test, the more we’ll understand where the virus is,” she said. “As we do more testing, we’ll get a better picture of the statewide spread of the epidemic.”

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A Georgia state trooper, right, walks the empty hallways of the Georgia Capitol on Friday during the 29th day of the state’s legislative session. Out of caution and in relation to the coronavirus, the General General Assembly suspended the legislative session until further notice. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

In Washington, President Donald Trump declared a national emergency and said he free up access to a $50 billion fund for states desperate for help to cope with the outbreak.

And federal lawmakers struck a deal over legislation that would provide billions of additional dollars to help sick workers, clear the way for more testing and calm a jittery market.

Health officials, meanwhile, warned the number of coronavirus cases will far exceed the 66 reported Saturday. The patients are mostly in metro Atlanta, though new cases were reported this week in rural parts of south and west Georgia. 

Earlier this week, a 67-year-old patient at Wellstar Kennestone Hospital became Georgia’s first patient to die from COVID-19.

Nearly 500 passengers from the Grand Princess cruise ship — which was hit with the coronavirus — arrived this week at Dobbins Air Reserve Base in Marietta, and some who are quarantined there reported cramped conditions

Kemp Saturday that the state was granted permission to transfer the Georgians at the base to their homes “as soon as possible,” and that emergency officials were on hand to help smooth the transition.

The state government, meanwhile, is building a “quarantine space” that will house residents who are sickened by the disease and who have nowhere to isolate themselves. 

The facility is under construction at the Georgia Public Safety Training Center in Monroe County and is expected to accommodate 20 temporary housing units when it’s completed.

Staff Writers Tyler Estep and Jeremy Redmon contributed to this report.

Read Kemp’s executive order:

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