With Georgia at ‘tipping point,’ Kemp orders more social distancing

Bars to close, public gatherings limited to 10 people

Gov. Brian Kemp, under pressure to aggressively combat Georgia’s coronavirus outbreak, banned many public gatherings, closed bars and authorized officials to shut down any business or institution that doesn’t comply — even churches.

But Kemp stopped short of ordering most Georgians to stay in their homes, closing restaurants or taking other more drastic measures imposed by a growing number of governors as the pandemic worsens. He did place restrictions on the Georgians considered most at risk of infection.

In an online speech late Monday, Kemp described his moves as “strategic, direct actions” that will help contain the virus that already has killed at least 26 Georgians.

“These measures are intended to ensure the health and safety of Georgians across our state, and I ask for everyone’s cooperation over the next two weeks,” Kemp said. “They will protect the medically fragile, mitigate potential exposure in public venues and allow the state to ramp up emergency preparedness as cases increase in each region.”

MORE: A map of coronavirus cases in Georgia (updated March 23)

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

Kemp acted as another top state official, House Speaker David Ralston, called for even tougher restrictions. The outbreak, Ralston said, has reached a "tipping point" in Georgia.

“I would support Gov. Kemp if he chooses to issue an order requiring nonessential workers to remain home for another 10 days, two weeks, to see if we can flatten this curve a little bit,” Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, told an online news outlet in North Georgia. “If we overreact, thank God we overreact.”

Local officials across Georgia imposed tighter social controls in their communities, as the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, increased to 800 on Monday — up by 180 from the previous day.

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms prepared a shelter-in-place order that will allow city residents to leave their homes only for reasons deemed essential. She had planned to sign an emergency order Monday but delayed it at the governor’s request.

DeKalb County CEO Michael Thurmond declared a state of emergency, banning public gatherings of 10 or more people — including funerals — and imposing a “voluntary curfew” from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m.

Kemp’s social distancing measures go into effect at noon Tuesday and are scheduled to expire April 6.

Besides shutting bars and nightclubs, Kemp prohibited public events of 10 or more people “unless you can maintain 6 feet between people at all times,” he said.

The restriction will not affect businesses such as grocery stores and pharmacies.

In an executive order signed Monday, Kemp authorized the state Department of Public Health to close any business or other institution, such as churches, that don’t limit crowds to no more than 10 people. He asked for the public’s help in enforcing the ban, which only applies to gatherings where people aren't at least 6 feet apart.

If Georgians see that a business is not complying, he said, “call them out — or report them to us.”

Kemp did not detail potential fines or other penalties for violating his order.

The order’s most restrictive measures affect only people with an increased risk of contracting the coronavirus. Kemp ordered such Georgians to “isolate, quarantine or shelter in place.”

They include residents of long-term care facilities, such as nursing homes, and people with chronic lung disease and those receiving cancer treatment. The restrictions also apply to anyone who has tested positive for COVID-19, is suspected of being infected or has been exposed to another person with the disease.

Earlier this month, Kemp declared a public health emergency in Georgia, and state lawmakers agreed to set aside $100 million to respond to the outbreak. Last week, Kemp ordered all schools to close, although most already had done so.

Since the crisis began, he has relied more on the power of persuasion than on mandating public behavior to contain the virus.

“I can’t believe Kemp still won’t act,” Russell Edwards, an Athens-Clarke County commissioner, said before the governor’s announcement Monday. He helped engineer a shelter-in-place policy in Kemp’s hometown. “How many more people must die before Kemp listens to the experts on how to respond?”

In his remarks, Kemp said he is following guidance from state public health officials and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Dr. Kathleen Toomey, Georgia’s public health commissioner, stood in the background during Kemp’s speech Monday, but she did not speak.

Before Kemp’s announcement, Georgia was one of only eight states that had adopted neither mandatory nor voluntary limits on public gatherings, according to the National Governors Association.

On Monday, the governors of Maryland and Massachusetts ordered nonessential businesses to close or limit their operations, and the chief executives in West Virginia and Wisconsin were reportedly preparing similar restrictions. In all, at least 35 states have tamped down business activity.

Since Sunday, governors in Delaware, Louisiana, Michigan and Ohio have ordered residents to stay at home except for essential outings. Five other governors had already issued shelter-at-home orders.

Public health experts say social distancing, particularly limiting the density of public gatherings, is key to corralling the coronavirus. But Kemp has repeatedly said he thought extreme measures would amount to “overreach.”

On Monday, he detailed the state’s distribution of emergency medical supplies and the amassing of overflow hospital beds and quarantine facilities, while mentioning no other possible measures to attack the virus.

“This fight is far from over,” Kemp said. “But we are in this fight together.”