Georgia governor to end public health state of emergency on July 1

Gov. Brian Kemp is set to lift the public health state of emergency roughly 15 months after lawmakers granted him broad new authorities to respond to the coronavirus pandemic.

The governor signed an executive order on Tuesday that ends his emergency powers on July 1, saying they are no longer needed as “more Georgians are getting vaccinated, our economic momentum is strong and people are getting back to normal.”

The emergency orders, ratified by lawmakers in an overwhelming vote in a special session in March 2020, gave his administration the ability to suspend state laws, take “direct” control of civil staffers, close schools, restrict travel and limit public gatherings.

While many of the sweeping powers weren’t used, the order paved the way for a series of changes still considered key to containing the pandemic. It loosened rules for licensing some health care workers and allowed vaccinations to be administered in unorthodox settings. It also opened the door to expanded federal benefits in the state.

When it was adopted last year, it was the first time in state history a governor had issued such an emergency declaration. Kemp said it was essential to have “all available resources” available to respond to an outbreak that was menacing the country and lawmakers, even those skeptical of granting the governor new powers, agreed to ratify the decision.

The repeal of the emergency order comes as Georgia’s fight against the coronavirus steadily improves. The number of COVID-19 infections, hospitalizations and deaths in Georgia are at the lowest levels since the earliest days of the pandemic, according to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis of state figures.

Though experts say the rapid decline in coronavirus cases is a sign of the effectiveness of the vaccine, the pace of those inoculations has slowed since a peak in late March. That has forced state and local health departments to shift strategies from mass vaccination sites to more targeted events, mobile clinics and pharmacies.

About 53% of Georgia adults have received at least one dose of vaccine, compared to the national average of 65%, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data. For eligible Georgians, those 12 and older, about 50% have received at least a single shot, compared to 62% nationally.

Kemp joins a growing number of governors who relaxed emergency powers as the number of cases subsides. But public health experts warn the virus remains a threat, and worry about a new strain of the virus known as the delta variant that overwhelmed India’s health system and has been detected in Georgia.

In recent months, Kemp has also lifted a sweep of coronavirus restrictions that have been in place through much of the pandemic. His office said Tuesday he is preparing to outline a new set of rules next week that won’t require emergency powers, but it’s not immediately clear what that would involve.

Though most lawmakers backed granting Kemp the emergency powers, some powerful politicians had second thoughts about the scope of the authority as the public health crisis continued.

Several proposals were introduced this legislative session to limit how broadly Kemp and future state leaders can wield the far-reaching authority ahead of the next crisis. But the measures, which included attempts to curtail the government’s ability to shutter religious institutions and certain businesses, failed to gain traction.

- Staff writer Ariel Hart contributed to this report.