The Winder and Statham city councils this week approved sweeping citywide measures, including a mandatory 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew, aimed at curbing the spread of the coronavirus, which is continuing to hit the U.S. and Georgia hard.
The measures — passed unanimously by the Winder council on Monday, March 23, and the Statham council on Tuesday, March 24 — also include the closure of certain businesses (entertainment, recreational and personal grooming) and a ban on dine-in services at restaurants and most public gatherings. The nearly-identical emergency declaration ordinances expire at 11:59 p.m. April 6, but both councils could extend them before then.
"This is (being done) in hopes that we can ride this wave out," Statham mayor Joe Piper said prior to the city council vote at the Statham Community Center on Tuesday. Each council member and others in attendance were seated several feet apart.
"We're hoping people will stay home (when they can," Piper said.
The Winder council passed its ordinance during a teleconference meeting Monday evening about two hours after Gov. Brian Kemp announced a two-week statewide ban on all gatherings of more than 10 people unless they can assure spacing of at least six feet between people at all times.
Kemp ordered the closing of bars and nightclubs across the state and his order gives the state public health department the authority to close all business and nonprofits — including churches — that do not abide by the regulations. All “medically-fragile” residents have been ordered to shelter in place for two weeks.
The council called a 3 p.m. meeting Monday to discuss potential measures and a declaration of a public health state of emergency in the city, but recessed about 20 minutes in after at least two members said they wanted to hear from Kemp and what statewide actions he might be take.
The measures approved by the councils go further than Kemp’s statewide order in several respects.
During the curfew period, people are ordered to remain in their homes unless they are providing designated services such as public safety, medical services, military services or utility emergency repairs.
Other exceptions include those in need of medical attention; people traveling to and from their jobs with appropriate identification; those traveling to medical facilities; those delivering food, medicine, medical supplies or fuel; news media employees; and for other “essential functions.”
Those in violation in Winder would be subject to a fine up to $1,000, city attorney John Stell said.
"If we see you out after 9, we will stop and question you and identify who you are," Statham police chief Ira Underwood said.
Underwood added that the department will switch to 12-hour shifts with extra patrols to combat any pickup in crime activity with most people home and some businesses closed. He said the department will still respond to emergency calls while handling "miscellaneous" calls over the phone.
"We hope that the public understands and that the curfew is adhered to," Piper said. "If we keep our heads about us and exercise good common sense, we can all get through this."
Entertainment and recreational facilities, as well as massage parlors, hair and nail salons, and “any facility used for an activity that involves prolonged physical proximity of individuals” are ordered to close for the duration of the ordinance period. Grocery stores, pharmacies and other businesses that remain open must post signage on their entrance doors informing consumers to maintain six feet of distancing.
Also, restaurants are not allowed to have dine-in services but can offer takeout services, given that employees, patrons and contractors must maintain at least six feet between themselves as much as possible.
Restaurants with alcohol licenses can sell unopened bottles or cans of beer or wine for take-out consumption off the premises. The alcohol may not be transported in cups.
Several restaurants around downtown Winder had already restricted or eliminated their dine-in services, or were announcing plans to do so, Monday prior to the council's meeting.
All public and private social gatherings of 10 or more people outside of a living unit are prohibited, except for the purposes of carrying on business certified as “essential” by the Georgia Emergency Management Agency, designated by the governor as “critical infrastructure” or the provision of medical or health services.
Public gatherings of 10 or more people on city property are also banned.
The emergency declarations for both cities also state that the city will not disconnect any utility service during the emergency period. After the emergency period, people have 30 days to make payments in full. They also give the mayors certain discretion and authority related to the classification of city services and procurement policies and extend the deadline for city-issued certificates, permits and other approvals by 15 days after the emergency period.
While the Winder council agreed the city won’t possibly be able to enforce the “six-feet rule” at every business, “businesses have got to do their part,” councilman Chris Akins said. He said the city should particularly reach out to grocery store managers to make sure they’re having people actively practice “social distancing.”
The council considered making the nighttime curfew voluntary but ultimately decided a mandatory curfew, with the aforementioned exceptions, would have more teeth and have a better effect.
“We’re all going to have to make responsible choices and you’re going to have to do what you think is right for your family,” councilwoman Holly Sheats said. “We’re doing what we can with this. I think some of it is an overreach, but I understand the severity of the situation.”
The full ordinances can be found on the cities' websites and social media pages.
NUMBER OF CASES CONTINUES TO CLIMB
There were 1,097 confirmed coronavirus cases and 38 reported deaths in the state, according to figures released at 7 p.m. Tuesday by the Georgia Department of Public Health. The next update was scheduled for noon Wednesday, March 25.
The department listed a second Barrow County case Tuesday night. It was not immediately clear whether the person lives in Barrow County or where they were being treated. The first case listed last week was confirmed by county officials to be a person with a Barrow address who was living in an assisted living facility in another county.
Clarke County had its first reported virus-related death Tuesday and now had 17 confirmed cases, according to the latest update. Hall County jumped up to 16 cases, while Gwinnett County has ballooned to 46 confirmed cases. Oconee County has five confirmed cases, and Walton County's first case was confirmed Tuesday.
Fulton County has the most cases in the state with 191, followed by DeKalb (107), Dougherty (101), Cobb (90) and Bartow (76).
There have been 361 hospitalizations (32.9 percent of confirmed cases) and more than 5,000 tests issued. Officials and health experts have repeatedly said the number of cases is likely much higher due to the lack of readily-available testing for everyone.
Nationally, there were over 53,000 confirmed cases and more than 700 deaths as of 7 p.m. Tuesday, according to figures from the Johns Hopkins University of Medicine Coronavirus Resource Center. Worldwide, there were over 417,000 reported cases and more than 18,600 reported deaths.
GMA URGES ACTION
Kemp has faced calls from medical professionals, state legislators from both major parties and local governments around the state to take stronger actions to stem the spread of the highly contagious virus and COVID-19, the disease it causes.
The Georgia Municipal Association on Tuesday urged all of its municipalities to declare public health emergencies and close "nonessential" businesses within their boundaries.
Like Winder and Statham, the City of Auburn has declared a state of local emergency but has not gone as far with its provisions. Most other local governments in Barrow have closed most of their facilities to the public, but there has not been a uniform approach to date as far as business closings and other related orders.
OFFICIALS DISCUSS REGIONAL APPROACH
An effort to coordinate a regional response to closures and local regulations didn't happen Tuesday, but a new sense of urgency to stop public gatherings was evident when leaders from five northeast Georgia counties talked about how to respond.
"It's going to snowball if we don't act quickly," said Jackson County Board of Commissioners chairman Tom Crow during a Tuesday conference call with several other Northeast Georgia officials.
The call, organized by Barrow County officials, was designed to see if Barrow, Jackson, Oconee, Gwinnett and Walton counties should adopt similar emergency declarations instead of doing a piecemeal approach. Barrow County officials said they worried that uneven restrictions could just push problems into surrounding jurisdictions where the regulations might be less strict.
The call was sparked in part by a statewide conference call Monday of city and county officials with a doctor from Emory who sounded the alarm that Georgia's COVID-19 cases were about to explode and overwhelm hospitals.
Winder mayor David Maynard told the city council Monday that he was in on the call and said the information they presented was “very sobering.” Maynard said those on the call were told by physicians that the state has “24 hours to take action or we will have no chance of slowing this down.”
“I personally, in the last 24 hours, have moved a long way in studying this and hearing from (public health officials and health care professionals),” Maynard said. “I think the general population is a little behind where I am now as far as how seriously we should take this and acting early to (change the outcome).
“…We really need people to stay in place. Everybody can’t do that and we understand that. But everybody who can stay home needs to.”
Crow, who also participated in that Monday call, told area officials time was short to enact stronger restrictions to keep people from congregating and spreading the virus. Crow said he favored a regional approach, if that were possible.
Barrow officials indicated that they would take stronger action this week with an emergency order in an bid to stem the spread of the virus. One of the issues in Barrow was a funeral last weekend that reportedly had 250 people attend, a far larger gathering than recommended.
Barrow officials were interested in an order under consideration by Gwinnett County. Barrow leaders said they would likely model their response on Gwinnett's version.
While no regional response emerged from the call, the group did mostly agree that nightly curfews were probably unenforceable and of little benefit.
And with the exception of Walton County officials, there seemed to be a consensus that Kemp's orders Monday didn't go far enough to enforce an end to public gatherings.
The state has established a new COVID-19 hotline. People can call 844-442-2681 to speak with medical professionals and share any public health information.
Those who believe they are experiencing COVID-19 symptoms should contact their primary care doctor or an urgent care facility but should not show up to an emergency room or health care facility unannounced.
Mike Buffington contributed to this story.