Gov. Brian Kemp discusses the state's coronavirus response during a town hall meeting that aired live on six of the state's major television networks on March 26, 2020. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Photo: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Photo: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Kemp, state leaders address coronavirus response in town hall

Gov. Brian Kemp defended the state’s response to the coronavirus in a surreal, socially-distanced town hall Thursday evening that aired simultaneously in prime time on six television networks. 

The Republican stood by his decisions to close K-12 schools through April 24, ban many public gatherings and authorize officials to shut down businesses that don’t comply with social distancing requirements. 

And he addressed criticism that he hasn’t done enough to combat the outbreak, which has claimed the lives of 56 Georgians and infected 1,643, including ordering a statewide shelter-in-place. 

“I’m having to govern the whole state,” he said. “We still have over 50 counties that don’t have a confirmed case yet. We’re trying to balance that.”

Read more: Kemp urges Georgians to heed virus warnings but balks at drastic steps

The event also featured Dr. Kathleen Toomey, commissioner of Georgia’s public health department; Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms; Homer Bryson, head of the state’s emergency management agency; and Georgia Insurance and Safety Fire Commissioner John King.

Review our live coverage below and peruse our colleague Maya T. Prabhu’s live tweets here

9:30 p.m.:  Reaction to Kemp’s town hall on social media was swift, with the bulk of the responses from elected officials falling along party lines. 

Democrats decried the governor’s resistance to ordering all Georgians to shelter in place while Republicans praised Kemp’s leadership.

“(Kemp) makes no sense,” said Stacey Evans, a former state representative who ran for the Democratic nomination for governor in 2018. “He says no statewide stay home order (because) every area of our state is different. But he closed the schools and bars statewide. Finish the drill.” 

And several Democrats questioned Kemp’s insistence that he was taking measured steps that he could revisit if the number of coronavirus-related deaths doesn’t slow down. 

“When was the last time you heard a winning coach say, we still have arrows in our quiver?” tweeted House Minority Leader Bob Trammell, a Luthersville Democrat. “When it's go time, you leave it all on the field. Everything. You don't get do-overs.” 

And state Rep. Josh McLaurin, a Sandy Springs Democrat, called the townhall disappointing. “It appears just to be a PR effort saying (1) statewide stay-home order isn’t needed and (2) local (government) and public should assess situation themselves,” he said. “How can you assess, when carriers are asymptomatic, or symptoms take up to 2 weeks to show?” 

But U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler, whom Kemp appointed last year, tweeted support of all the state’s task force members who appeared during the town hall. 

“Proud of their efforts as we work together to combat Covid-19,” Loeffler said. 

And former Republican state Rep. Buzz Brockway specifically said he appreciated Kemp’s “calm leadership.” 

“These are trying times and on social media ‘everyone's an expert,’” he said. “Kemp's making tough calls and I support him 100%. We all need to do our part, act with wisdom, and love our neighbors.”

-Maya T. Prabhu

8:55 p.m.: Kemp’s last question was about whether he was committed to providing paid sick leave for employees contending with the coronavirus. The governor said he was “very pleased” with the way the business community has responded to the pandemic and said help was on the way via the $2.2 trillion emergency relief package the U.S. House is expected to pass on Friday. 

“That’s exactly what the federal package is designed to be doing,” Kemp said, referring to sick leave. “That’s something that we have pushed for. I have myself and the nation’s governors have because we know that our people are hurting right now and we’ve got to continue to fight for them. I’m very hopeful that help will be there shortly.” 

8:50 p.m.: Kemp was also asked about whether he was open to expanding Medicaid to cover Georgians who have recently lost their jobs and insurance coverage. He said the issue was a question for the Legislature, which is not currently in session, before pivoting to tout the “unprecedented” communication he’s had with the president and the Trump administration. 

“They’ve been listening to governors about what we need “for this healthcare crisis we all have going on in our states,” Kemp said. 

Democrats responded that Georgia has a moral imperative to expand Medicaid now. State Rep. Josh McLaurin, D-Sandy Springs, said Georgia was leaving billions of federal dollars on the table “instead of protecting the most vulnerable—during the worst health crisis of our lives.”


 

Kemp said he’s been working with Legislative leaders to make sure the state can “be flexible to pay for our Medicaid program and take care of all Georgians in this crisis.”

Kemp and other top Republican leaders in Georgia have for years rejected expanding Medicaid under Obamacare, citing its cost. 

8:45 p.m.: GPB’s Patricia Murphey asked Kemp about his decision today to keep K-12 schools closed through April 24. 

Kemp said the late April deadline “gives us enough time to see where the virus is going to go.” 

“Hopefully we’ll be on the back side of this virus” by then, he said, before emphasizing that he wants parents to feel comfortable sending their kids back to school. 

8:40 p.m. Asked about renters who fear being evicted from their homes because they lost their job, Insurance Commissioner John King said state leaders are working with their local counterparts. “Nobody is minimizing the challenge that we have,” he said after saying that local jurisdictions will need to take the lead. 

8:35 p.m.: Smack in the middle of the debate, our colleague Maya T. Prabhu reports that a sixth state elected official, Georgia Rep. Matthew Gambill, R-Cartersville, has tested positive for the coronavirus.

Five state senators have confirmed they have the virus: Lester Jackson, D-Savannah; Brandon Beach, R-Alpharetta; Bruce Thompson, R-White; Kay Kirkpatrick, R-Marietta; and Nikema Williams, D-Atlanta.

8:25 p.m.: Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, a member of Gov. Kemp’s coronavirus task force, said an angel donor has donated a hotel downtown for homeless people who need to be quarantined or isolated due to the virus. Read more about local efforts to protect the homeless here.

Bottoms was also asked if Kemp should order the entire state to shelter in place. Here’s what she said: 


 

8:20 p.m.: Commissioner of Public Health Kathleen Toomey was asked about Georgia’s efforts to acquire ventilators and other equipment for overwhelmed hospitals. Toomey said the state is working with the feds and private vendors but could not say how many ventilators the state has and how many it’ll need. 

Toomey said the state is expecting its first shipment of ventilators to arrive imminently and that those will be headed toward hotspots like Albany and Rome. The state is also looking to identity non-traditional sources for equipment like ventilators, she said, including technical colleges and universities. 

“We’re trying to amass the needed amounts before it comes to that crisis point,” she said. 

8:15 p.m. Kemp urged Georgians not to get too alarmed about the rising numbers of confirmed cases in Georgia, especially as testing has become more widespread. 

“We have to continue to test more” and find faster tests, Kemp said. But “we can’t just be so focused on testing that we’re not focused on how we flatline the spread of this virus.”

8:10 p.m.: Kemp’s first question was about why he has not ordered a two-week shelter-in-place as many other states have. 

The governor said he was consulting with public health experts and praised local officials, including Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, for issuing their own stay-at-home orders. But he defended his decision not to do the same statewide, especially since many counties in Georgia don’t have any confirmed cases of coronavirus. 

"I'm having to govern the whole state,” he said, before adding: “I still have arrows in the quiver if things get worse.” 

Kemp also urged Georgians to adhere to social distancing rules from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

“It’s really up to the public to cut down on the number of people who have to go to the hospital,” he said.

7:45 p.m.: Kemp is expected to address his previous request for Washington to approve block grants to help states contending with major fiscal shortfalls due to the coronavirus. 

Kemp asked President Donald Trump for emergency federal aid last week and rounded up signatures from almost two-dozen GOP governors for a recent letter to Congress.

As our colleague James Salzer reported on Monday, the state is facing a major potential budget shortfall this fiscal year as businesses close, Georgians lose jobs and economic activity in general slows dramatically in response to the virus. The decline in economic activity will likely mean a huge drop in tax revenue the state needs to fund everything from schools to public health care, prisons and public safety.

The $2.2 trillion relief bill approved by the U.S. Senate late Wednesday would create a $500 billion lending program for states, cities and businesses grappling with shortfalls. It’s expected to see action in the U.S. House Friday. 

Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said today that future legislation will be necessary to offer additional aid to hard-hit states such as New York, but it’s unclear whether Georgia would qualify to receive extra benefits. 

7:10 p.m.: Another topic that’s sure to be addressed: Gov. Brian Kemp’s decision to keep schools closed through April 24.

The governor signed an executive order Thursday that gives K-12 schools the power to reopen their buildings by April 27, though that could change if the pandemic worsens. 

He stopped short of canceling brick-and-mortar learning for students through the end of the academic year, though, a decision that a small but growing number of other governors have recently made. 

The town hall will give Kemp his first public forum to discuss the decision, and the toll the pandemic has inflicted on millions of Georgia students and parents who are adapting to home-schooling while juggling other duties. 

6:40 p.m.: We’ll go ahead and label this as Democratic counter-programming. 

Stacey Abrams, Kemp’s rival from the 2018 gubernatorial race, announced she’ll be joining MSNBC’s “All In with Chris Hayes” tonight at 8 p.m. to discuss the coronavirus “and the challenges it poses to our democracy.” 


 

6:30 p.m.: Ahead of tonight’s town hall event, state Democrats gathered sharp questions from voters using the hashtag #AskGovKemp on Twitter. (The hashtag is currently trending in Georgia and has prompted more than 3,300 replies.)

Some want to know why he has refused to impose a shelter-in-place order, others wanted to press him about the disease’s rapid spread through parts of rural Georgia. And many wanted more details about an ongoing shortage of test kits that’s complicating the state’s response.

Here are a few of the questions that the Democratic Party of Georgia prepared for Kemp:

- Grocery, retail and food processing workers are essential to the management of this crisis and deserve the same resources afforded to other emergency personnel during this pandemic. Will Brian Kemp classify them as emergency personnel during this pandemic?

- This pandemic has increased economic strain on households across the state. Will Brian Kemp expand access to new SNAP applications, as well as expand existing SNAP benefits until June 2020?

- Unemployment has increased sharply because of this pandemic. Will Brian Kemp commit to adding additional virtual staff to handle unemployment claims, as well as waiving the seven day waiting period and work-search requirements for applicants?

6:00 p.m.: Democrats and some public health experts have been unsparing in their criticism of Kemp. 

They want him to use his new emergency powers to order most Georgians to shelter in place, close nonessential businesses and impose other strict measures that have been adopted by a growing number of governors. 

Kemp has held his ground, previewing his message in an Atlanta Journal-Constitution interview on Tuesday in which he said he was seeking to balance public safety and economic vitality but that he has more “arrows left in the quiver.”

“We cannot only think about what we’re dealing with today, but the future of our state two months from now, six months now and six years from now. I’ve been really balancing all these things,” Kemp said, adding there are some Georgians still “doubting the effects of the coronavirus” and others who want him to lock down the state.

Kemp has praised local governments that have imposed tougher restrictions and singled out Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms for the stay-at-home order she signed late Monday. At the same time, he said he wasn’t worried about the patchwork of local responses that have left some areas under voluntary curfews and others with scaled-back restrictions in place. 

As for whether he’d implement a statewide shelter-in-place order to match those that have been rolled out in an increasing number of states, Kemp told us Tuesday he wasn’t drawing a line in the sand. 

“I’d hate to say there’s a certain threshold. I’m continuing to rely on information I’m getting from public health. What our modeling is showing, what our hospital situation is,” Kemp said.

“We’ve seen in other countries just because you shelter in place (it doesn’t mean) there’s not going to be tremendous growth in coronavirus cases," he said. "That’s why I think we need to focus on the elderly and the medically fragile.”

Original post 5:30 p.m. 

Tonight’s town hall is unusual for many reasons. 

It marks the first time the governor has taken public questions since the coronavirus has blazed a path of destruction across the state. Kemp’s recent on-camera coronavirus briefings have been restricted to written questions from the news media. 

It’s also prompted a rare bout of cooperation from Atlanta’s fiercely competitive broadcast stations, which will televise the event in unison from separate studios miles apart. 

Kemp will be stationed at the Midtown headquarters of Channel 2 Action News, while other top officials will be scattered around different metro Atlanta studios. 

The networks have each pre-empted other prime time shows to air the event. Our colleague Rodney Ho reported earlier that new episodes of popular television shows such as “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” and “Station 19” will now air later in the evening.

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