OPINION: The friends David Ralston has lost to COVID-19

01/07/2021 — Atlanta, Georgia — Georgia Speaker of the House David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, makes remarks during a pre legislative session media availability at the Georgia State Capitol building in downtown Atlanta, Thursday, January 7, 2021. The Georgia legislative session will begin January 11, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
01/07/2021 — Atlanta, Georgia — Georgia Speaker of the House David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, makes remarks during a pre legislative session media availability at the Georgia State Capitol building in downtown Atlanta, Thursday, January 7, 2021. The Georgia legislative session will begin January 11, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

After House Speaker David Ralston ejected Rep. David Clarke from the House chamber last week for refusing to be tested for Coronavirus, the Speaker explained to his colleagues, “I don’t know about y’all, but I’ve been to too many funerals.”

In truth, the 66-year-old Republican leader has attended so many funerals since COVID-19 started taking his friends and neighbors that he’s lost count of how many there have been. Fifteen, maybe 20, not counting the services that weren’t held in the pandemic’s early days.

Like every corner of every county everywhere in America, the Coronavirus has crashed into Ralston’s hometown of Blue Ridge, Ga. like a wave that never went back out to sea.

“We have a weekly newspaper,” Ralston said. “The obituaries used to be three or four per week. Now they have two full pages, and sometimes they spill over to a third page. And all ages. It’s devastating.”

Although he’s one of the most powerful people in the state, he’s quick to point out that in this respect, he’s no different from anyone else, where the virus has killed more than 14,000 and sickened nearly 900,000 more.

He thinks about his friends dying alone. “You’re going to be in this room and your family can’t get to you,” he said. “And that’s the part that really, really breaks my heart.”

It’s not only affected the way Ralston runs his office, where masks, plexiglass, and hand wipes are in high supply, but also the rules that govern the House and, likely, the priorities Georgians are likely to see funded by the end of the 2021 legislative session.

The approach has stood out from the COVID deniers, wishful thinkers, catastrophizers and freedom-loving, mask-free loonies leading various parts of the state and country.

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“On the side of safety”

Unlike former President Donald Trump and other Republicans who downplayed COVID-19 or called it a hoax, Ralson has taken the threat from the virus seriously from the earliest days.

On March 10, with six cases diagnosed in Georgia but life mostly continuing apace, Ralston abruptly suspended the House page program and asked the public “in the strongest possible terms” not to come to the Capitol.

The state Senate remained fully open for business and the ACLU warned that they’d be watching to make sure everyday people’s civil liberties weren’t violated by being kept out of the building.

“You know I did not agree with every single decision” of other leaders,” Ralston said of that time. “My view was let’s err on the side of safety.”

Later that day, the president visited Senate Republicans at the U.S. Capitol and later assured reporters that COVID-19 was far less dangerous than the flu.

“Be calm,” Trump said. “It’s really working out and a lot of good things are going to happen.”

In reality, things were about to get much worse. The next evening, the NBA suspended its season. The day after that, Gov. Brian Kemp suggested that Georgia schools consider closing for two weeks. Hundreds of thousands of Georgia children haven’t been back in a classroom since.

The following week, Ralston and other Capitol leaders agreed to suspend the session indefinitely, but not before a COVID-positive state senator went into the Capitol for several days and eventually forced Ralson and multiple lawmakers into quarantine.

While he was in isolation, Ralston watched in alarm as COVID cases in the state rose and thought about how to keep members safe if, and when, they returned to work

“That was 12 days away from being able to see my mom and my family because of someone being reckless and irresponsible,” he said. “And we weren’t going to do that in this House. The state did not have a mask mandate, but the House was going to have one.”

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“Life is more fragile”

Now back in session for 2021, Ralston has instituted far stricter safety measures than Congress and most businesses.

Members and staff are tested twice a week. Masks are worn at all times. And as Rep. Clarke can attest, the rules are enforced.

“The speaker made the right call,” Speaker Pro Tem Jan Jones, R-Milton, said on the day Clarke was tossed.

Looking ahead, Ralston said the state needs to be financially prepared to deal with the fallout from COVID in public health and education for years, but the money the House added for both to the midyear budget falls short of what Democrats say is needed to address vulnerable communities.

The speaker calls mental health “number one priority” related to COVID, especially in a state where treating mental health has always taken a backseat to physical ailments.

“My nephew’s wife is an RN and she’s been working in the ICU day after day,” he said. “Can you imagine? I can’t.”

For his own purposes, Ralston says he thinks about traveling again someday. And watching baseball games with people in the stands instead of cardboard cut-outs. And life being normal.

“Hopefully, we come out on the other side, we will maybe have some priorities re-ordered,” he said. “Knowing that life is a little more fragile than maybe we all got to thinking.”

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