The Winder City Council, during a called meeting Tuesday, March 31, opted not to join Barrow County, the City of Auburn and the Town of Braselton in issuing a "stay-at-home order" for city residents as local governments continue to grapple with the coronavirus pandemic.

A motion to approve the order failed by a 4-2 vote, primarily due to concerns and confusion over a lengthy list of businesses deemed "essential" and exempt from closing. 

Instead, the council will continue to keep in place emergency measures it enacted last week — including a nighttime curfew, a ban on dine-in service at restaurants, the prohibition of most public gatherings and the closure of entertainment, fitness, recreation and personal grooming businesses. That ordinance expires at 11:59 p.m. Monday, April 6, but will likely be extended by the council at its scheduled work session that evening. 

On Monday, March 30, Barrow County announced a stay-at-home order, effective through April 13, which ordered residents to stay home with a handful of exemptions, prohibited all public and private gatherings outside of a living unit and ordered businesses not deemed "essential" to close. The list of "essential businesses," following U.S. Department of Homeland Security guidelines, is lengthy with nearly two dozen exemptions. A full list can be found here

In announcing the order, county officials had urged all of the municipal governments in the county to impose orders as well to avoid confusion from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Auburn and Braselton, which are both partially in Gwinnett County, had already announced stay-at-home orders Friday, March 27, in conjunction with Gwinnett and all of its other municipalities. The Statham City Council, which already has the same measures in effect as Winder through April 6, and the Bethlehem Town Council are scheduled to hold votes on stay-at-home orders in line with the county's on Wednesday, April 1. 

But several Winder council members said Tuesday the proposed order has too many loopholes and would present small businesses in the community with a competitive disadvantage.

"I believe the actions we took (last week) are sufficient, and I think we would be confusing people with additional regulations and accomplishing nothing essential in regard to public health," said councilman Chris Akins, who was joined in opposition by Holly Sheats, Kobi Kilgore and Sonny Morris. "This thing is about as clear as muddy water. I think by passing this ordinance, we would be picking winners and losers. And I just don't think that's right."

Several council members made the point that Walmart on Atlanta Highway — which is in the county's jurisdiction but is covered under the "essential business" clause because it carries food, groceries and other items that make it exempt — would be allowed to remain open while some businesses in town that carry a similar product might not be. 

Sheats said the order would be unfair to small businesses that have worked "very diligently" to follow "social distancing" requirements while people would be more at risk at Walmart or another grocery store. With a stay-at-home order in place, people could flock to Walmart and other stores in higher numbers as a means of getting out of the house for a bit, without actually needing groceries.

"It's a punishment to our small business owners when it doesn't guarantee public safety," Sheats said of the proposed order. "It's not that I don't want to align with the county; I do. I think it would make things much easier. ...I'm just not able to stomach this right now."

"There's a loophole to everything and people are going to find it," Kilgore added.

The different approach by the local governments in the county and others around the state comes as Gov. Brian Kemp has faced mounting calls to take stronger action and perhaps issue a statewide "shelter-in-place" order that would apply to everyone. Critics of the governor's approach to the crisis from that aspect have contended the patchwork nature of the local measures creates too much confusion among citizens. Kemp has balked at the prospect of a statewide shelter-in-place order so far but has said that could still be an option under consideration.

The Georgia Municipal Association last week urged all of its members to enact stronger measures beyond what the governor has ordered to this point, and Winder mayor David Maynard has said the city should put tighter regulations in place. 

"The fact that we're sending a stronger message (with a stay-at-home order) may encourage more people to abide by it than there are now," Maynard said. "The problem is now that people still aren't taking it seriously."

Councilman Travis Singley, who voted in favor of the order along with councilman Jimmy Terrell, said the urgency of the situation was his main concern. According to the latest update from the Georgia Department of Public Health at 7 p.m. Tuesday, there were 19 confirmed coronavirus cases in Barrow County and two deaths from COVID-19, the disease the virus causes. Statewide, there were 4,117 confirmed cases and 125 deaths.

"Every day, (the number of cases is) multiplying," Singley said. "There's more and more people getting this awful virus and more people dying. We've got to come up with a solution from that standpoint."

Terrell said he shared the concerns about the impact on small businesses but said the primary goal should be getting residents to follow proper precautions.

"What we don't want to do in Barrow County is overload the health care system," Terrell said. 

Sheats reiterated that people should only leave their home if they need to and limit contact with others while they're out.

"I implore our citizens to treat 'essential' businesses as such and not outings," she said. "We should only be going to the grocery store and those places when it's absolutely necessary, not just when we have cabin fever."

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