Barrow County, the City of Auburn and the Town of Braselton have issued “stay-at-home” orders for their residents, but the Winder City Council has opted not to do so but will instead keep in place emergency measures it enacted last week as local governments continue to grapple with the coronavirus pandemic.
As of press time, there were 19 confirmed coronavirus cases in Barrow County and two deaths from COVID-19, the disease the virus causes. The Georgia Department of Public Health listed those as a 66-year-old male and 91-year-old female, both with underlying conditions. Statewide, there were 4,117 confirmed cases and 125 deaths as of 7 p.m. Tuesday, March 31. Another update was scheduled for noon Wednesday, April 1.
On Monday, March 30, Barrow County announced a stay-at-home order, effective through April 13, strengthening a set of measures the board of commissioners had approved Friday, March 27.
Under the new order, residents in the unincorporated areas must stay home except when conducting activities that are "essential to their own health and safety and that of family/household members, partners, significant others and pets." Those activities include obtaining food, medication and medical supplies household consumer supplies and health care services, or caring for a family member or pet in another household. People may also engage in outdoor activity such as walking, hiking, running or biking as long as they comply with "social distancing" requirements of maintaining at least six feet of space. People who work to provide essential services or essential products may leave their places of residence to carry out those activities.
The order also prohibits 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. Among those are health care businesses; grocery stores; farms; organizations that provide food, shelter and social services to those in need; news agencies; gas stations, auto supply and auto repair shops; shipping and receiving; banks; private education institutions; plumbers, exterminators, electricians and similar businesses; laundry service providers; and restaurants that offer delivery, takeout or drive-thru service.
A complete list can be found on the county’s website at barrowga.org.
CALLS FOR STRONGER ACTION
The county’s action came after Auburn and Braselton, which are both partially in Gwinnett County, enacted nearly identical stay-at-home orders Friday in conjunction with Gwinnett and all of its other municipalities.
Braselton’s order also runs through April 13, while Auburn’s runs through April 16 because the city council wants to vote at its April 16 meeting on whether or not to extend it, city administrator Alex Mitchem said.
“I know this is frustrating. It is for everyone,” Auburn mayor Linda Blechinger said in a written statement to city residents. “I certainly do not want people to suffer because of businesses being closed. We have worked very hard to bring new businesses to our community and to keep businesses open as long as possible and will continue to do so.
“This health emergency is just that — an emergency. More than anything, my desire is for each and every one of you to be safe and to not have any deaths related to the virus. It is a horrible disease.”
In announcing the county’s 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.
WINDER COUNCIL REJECTS ORDER
But the Winder council, during a called meeting Tuesday, March 31, voted 4-2 not to approve a stay-at-home order, 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 from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m., 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.
The Statham City Council, which already has the same measures in effect as Winder through April 6, and the Bethlehem Town Council were scheduled to hold votes on stay-at-home orders in line with the county's order on Wednesday, April 1. The results of those votes were not known as of press time.
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.
LACK OF UNIFORMITY
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.
The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Barrow more than doubled from 7 p.m. Monday to 7 p.m. Tuesday, and nearly 1,100 cases and 23 more deaths were reported around the state during that span.
"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."