The Jolt: A town-and-gown clash over COVID-19 in Athens

FILE - In this Aug. 20, 2020, file photo, a student, wearing a face mask, enters the school book store at the University of Georgia in Athens, Ga. The number of Americans newly diagnosed with the coronavirus is falling — a development experts credit at least partly to increased wearing of masks — even as the outbreak continues to claim nearly 1,000 lives in the U.S. each day. (Joshua L. Jones/Athens Banner-Herald via AP)

Credit: Joshua L. Jones

Credit: Joshua L. Jones

The town-and-gown relationship between the University of Georgia and Athens-Clarke County might need some mending when the pandemic subsides.

Athens lawmakers have been among the state’s most aggressive in adopting coronavirus restrictions. They imposed strict limits before Gov. Brian Kemp’s statewide order, then defied the Republican in July by ordering a mask mandate.

But University of Georgia Interfraternity Council President Brennan Cox, a student, is pinning the blame on Mayor Kelly Girtz and other local government officials for a recent spike in the school’s cases. In a letter he sent Monday to Kemp, Cox said there’s a “troubling contrast” in student behavior off-campus.

“This behavior, and consequent rise in positive cases among UGA students, is likely enabled or exacerbated by Mayor Girtz and the Commission’s ill-fated choice to not enforce your Executive Orders in their entirety.”

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The letter goes on to say that Girtz and the commission have focused too much on enforcing occupancy limits at downtown bars and restaurants rather than requiring social distancing and other safety precautions. The student also faults the town for the spread of coronavirus in fraternities and sororities.

“Despite many pleas from University officials and myself, it is unfortunate to hear many chapter presidents and individual members contending, ‘If the bars do it, why can’t we do the same at the fraternity house or my apartment?’ However, their logic is not misplaced. Private individuals and public businesses must all play by the same rules.”

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The university reported 1,417 positive cases between Aug. 31 and Sept. 4, according to a weekly update posted on its website. The previous week, UGA reported 821 positive cases, its highest five-day total since the pandemic began in March.

So there are some who might interpret the above letter as a bit of preemptive blame-shifting by a sector of UGA with a reputation for hard partying. Even so, the letter reflects some of the thoughts expressed by UGA President Jere Morehead a few days ago, as noted by our AJC colleague Chip Towers. Said Morehead:

“I have a mask on and everyone in my class has a mask on, and we’re all social distancing. Where it’s not working is downtown in the evenings. It’s not working at off-campus parties. Unfortunately, those are things beyond my control. They’re under the control of the Athens-Clarke County government.”

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We reached out to Mayor Girtz, who this morning provided us with a lengthy response that you can read here in its entirety. A choice passage, in which the mayor addresses enforcement:

The language used in the bar regulation section of the current governor’s order is rife with ‘carve-outs’ that create the legal loopholes that neuter the entire section. For example, the prelude to the bar section closes with the phrase ‘as practicable,’ which in plain language means ‘measures must be feasible, operable, and not too difficult in actual practice.’

That same section mentions that tables should be separated ‘if applicable,’ meaning “if it’s a standing room-only joint, never mind.”

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But Girtz did acknowledge that his government could increase patrols to ensure that “underage drinkers are not in bars at all.” And there was this:

“UGA can also share in enforcement responsibilities with their police department, and hold individual students accountable through suspension or dismissal for safety violations if they host parties or do not follow quarantine orders.”

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Jackson Healthcare, an Alpharetta-based staffing company with strong Republican political connections, has been paid more than $40 million in state funds to supply medical workers to fight COVID-19, according to Georgia Health News.

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A whistle-blower stationed at one of Georgia’s immigrant detention centers has lodged a detailed complaint alleging that detainees and employees have not been suitably protected from the spread of the coronavirus at the Irwin County Detention Center in Ocilla, Ga.

More disturbing is the allegation by Dawn Wooten, a licensed practical nurse, that detention center medical personnel are performing hysterectomies on incarcerated women who might not be fully aware of what they agreed to. From our AJC colleague Jeremy Redmon:

… “Ms. Wooten also stated that detained women expressed to her that they didn’t fully understand why they had to get a hysterectomy,” the complaint says. “She said: ‘I’ve had several inmates tell me that they’ve been to see the doctor and they’ve had hysterectomies and they don’t know why they went or why they’re going.’”

Georgia House Minority Leader Robert Trammell Jr. of Luthersville reacted to news media reports about the hysterectomies Monday by sending a letter to the Georgia Composite Medical Board and Georgia Board of Nursing.

“I am writing to request that you immediately suspend the licenses of the providers named in the whistleblower complaint,” Trammell wrote, “pending a full investigation by your offices.”

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You’ll forgive the 8,500 or so Atlanta-based employees of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention if they seem a little paranoid this morning. From the New York Times:

The top communications official at the powerful cabinet department in charge of combating the coronavirus made outlandish and false accusations on Sunday that career government scientists were engaging in “sedition” in their handling of the pandemic and that left-wing hit squads were preparing for armed insurrection after the election.

Michael R. Caputo, the assistant secretary of public affairs at the Department of Health and Human Services, accused the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention of harboring a “resistance unit” determined to undermine President Trump, even if that opposition bolsters the Covid-19 death toll.

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A subcommittee in the U.S. House, under Democratic control, is launching an investigation.

The CDC is one of the largest employers in the state, and is often cited as the engine of Georgia’s thriving medical industry. We sought comment from members of Georgia’s congressional delegation on the above report, but most declined to respond.

U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, who is running for the Senate, was the only Republican to weigh in. He said the dust up was another attempt by Democrats to tarnish Trump. “Let’s just be honest: this is nothing more than a blatantly political attempt to weaponize the power of the House of Representatives to lead us down yet another witch hunt into President Trump,” said Collins, R-Gainesville.

Scientists at the CDC might agree with the “witch hunt” part -- but little else.

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NBC News this week noted that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has quietly relaunched his extravagant, taxpayer-funded “Madison Dinners” during the coronavirus pandemic. In doing so, the news outlet published a photo of the most recent diners.

Fourth from the right, near U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, was Atlanta Falcons CEO Steve Cannon.

The Falcons declined comment on the matter – except to say that Cannon was not attending the dinner as a team representative. We’re told that Pompeo and Cannon both graduated from West Point in 1986 and are personal friends.

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This morning, President Donald Trump’s son Eric will host an event in Cumming dubbed “Evangelicals for Trump: Praise, Prayer, and Patriotism” with Paula White -- the president’s advisor on evangelical issues. In a now-deleted post, a Fulton County Democratic group urged followers to snap up tickets to the event.

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Leaders in the Southern Baptist Convention, which used its religious authority to uphold slavery before the Civil War, are increasingly dropping the “Southern” part of their Baptist name, according to the Washington Post. The branding debate stretches back decades but has resurfaced with new emphasis. From the Post:

The 50,000 Baptist churches in the convention are autonomous and can still choose to refer to themselves as “Southern Baptist” or “SBC.” But in his first interview on the topic, convention president J.D. Greear said momentum has been building to adopt the name “Great Commission Baptists,” both because of the racial reckoning underway in the United States and because many have long seen the “Southern Baptist” name as too regional for a global group of believers.

“Our Lord Jesus was not a White Southerner but a brown-skinned Middle Eastern refugee,” said Greear, who this summer used the phrase “Black lives matter” in a presidential address and announced that he would retire a historic gavel named for an enslaver. “Every week we gather to worship a savior who died for the whole world, not one part of it. What we call ourselves should make that clear.”

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The left-leaning group End Citizens United put U.S. Sen. David Perdue on its Big Money 20 list of incumbents it aims to defeat, giving Democrat Jon Ossoff a potential boost.

The group says it will promote how Perdue and other Republicans are “rigging the system to benefit themselves, their donors and the corrupt establishment.”

The political action committee packs a powerful punch: It has 75,000 members in Georgia and spent $44 million last cycle.

Perdue’s campaign accused the group of hypocrisy, saying that millions in “dark money from Chuck Schumer’s super PAC have already been spent on (Ossoff’s) behalf this election to push lies about Senator Perdue.”

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The debate schedule is set for the race between U.S. Sen. David Perdue and Democrat Jon Ossoff.

The first debate will be held on Oct. 12, sponsored by the Atlanta Press Club and aired statewide on Georgia Public Broadcasting. Next comes an Oct. 20 WTOC-TV debate in Savannah, followed by a Nov. 1 WSB-TV debate two days before the election.

We also have the timing of a debate for U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler’s seat: The Atlanta Press Club’s showdown in that race will be held on Oct. 19, with groupings for the top tier and the second tier of candidates.

The Press Club is also hosting debates on Oct. 12 and 13 with candidates for the Congressional District 5, 6, 7, 9 and (possibly) 14 races and the Public Service Commission. Those debates will stream live and also be aired on Georgia Public Broadcasting.

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Once again, Democrat Matt Lieberman reminded Georgians he’s not going anywhere in the race for U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler’s seat.

And in an appearance on MSNBC, he took aim at both top Republicans and Democratic front-runner Raphael Warnock. Said Lieberman:

"Let’s be honest. Kelly Loeffler is not in this race without Brian Kemp. Doug Collins isn’t in the race without a wink and a nod from Donald Trump. And Raphael Warnock’s not in the race without Chuck Schumer deciding that was the thing to do.

“I respect Chuck Schumer. I think he’s a smart guy. But you know, smart people make mistakes.”

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Seventh District candidate Rich McCormick has officially been declared one of the Republican Party’s Young Guns, a designation for its top U.S. House competitors in this year’s campaign cycle. Karen Handel was already on the list.

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U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Lithonia, is participating in a virtual press event today in hopes of pressuring Senate Republicans to take up the Justice in Policing Act, a slate of Democratic-backed reforms that were passed in the House during the height of protests over the death of George Floyd.

The Senate, led by the sole Black Republican Tim Scott, passed a different version of reforms that were criticized by Democrats as not going far enough.

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