Editor's note: This column was published in the April 1 edition of the Barrow News-Journal prior to Gov. Kemp's Wednesday announcement of a statewide shelter-in-place order that will take effect Friday, April 3.
When Emory University professor Dr. Carlos del Rio made a conference-call presentation to mayors and county leaders the morning of March 23 about the need for the state to take stronger action immediately to combat the coronavirus pandemic and keep the state’s hospitals from being overwhelmed, the number of confirmed cases in Georgia was at 620 with 25 deaths.
Eight days later, there were 4,117 confirmed cases — a more than sixfold increase — and 100 more people had died, including two listed from Barrow County.
The pandemic is spiraling out of control across the U.S., which now has more confirmed cases than any other nation in the world, and Georgia has not been spared. The sobering and painful reality is our number of actual cases is likely far higher given the lack of readily-available testing for everyone who should be tested.
More than half of the nation’s governors have enacted mandatory “shelter-in-place” orders for their states, but Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp has to this point balked at the idea, despite pleas from del Rio and other medical professionals, as well as those of politicians from both major political parties, to take stronger action.
“I still have arrows in the quiver, if you will, if things get worse,” Kemp said Thursday, March 26, in a televised town hall.
Now is not the time for folksy slogans or half-measures. It is time for the governor to follow the lead of more than two dozen other governors and take decisive statewide action.
Kemp’s hesitance in part centers around his point that there are plenty of Georgia counties (38 as of this writing) without confirmed cases. But again, with the lack of testing, how can we really know that?
In the absence of stronger action by the governor, local governments across the state have picked up the slack. And del Rio’s presentation — which estimated the period of March 24-29 as a window to act and provided information on how highly contagious the virus is — seems to have been a pivot point for many of them.
By Monday, March 30, Barrow County, the City of Auburn and the Town of Braselton had put stay-at-home orders in place. The Winder City Council opted against that Tuesday, March 31, but still has several emergency measures in place. The Statham City Council and Bethlehem Town Council were scheduled to vote Wednesday, April 1, on stay-at-home orders as well.
While Kemp has backed mayors and county officials going beyond statewide restrictions, some close to him apparently aren’t impressed.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported Kemp’s chief of staff Tim Fleming had taken to Facebook to say that “doomsday” models for COVID-19 has led to “people panicking and local governments across our state overreacting.”
“Ultimately, judgment is often clouded by power,” Fleming wrote. “As a result of their overreach, many small businesses will struggle and some will not reopen.”
The newspaper went on to quote Kemp consultant Jeremy Brand as implying that local governments were exploiting panic to exert more authority over their citizens.
The governor may need new advisers.
In reality, many of the local orders probably haven’t gone far enough, and the patchwork nature of them to this point has been confusing to the public.
The local governments here in Barrow County aren't in sync with their measures, and some measures have been voted on by elected bodies while others (the stay-at-home orders) have not.
The various ordinances in place also carry numerous exceptions and exemptions, and even Fleming made the point that local governments around the state seem to be “cherry-picking” what businesses are deemed "essential."
All of this is all the more reason there should be a stronger and more uniform statewide approach — more along the lines of the governor’s mandate closing public schools through April 24 — that would be simpler for everyone to understand and give the state a better chance of truly getting a grasp on this crisis. If nothing else, more regionally-focused steps around the state are warranted.
What I can say about covering and observing the local governments here in Barrow County over the last couple of weeks is this: they did not take their votes lightly and there was not universal agreement about every aspect of every order. This was and is not, as I’ve seen suggested on social media, some Gestapo-like attempt to declare control over their citizens. They and the local governmental body in Athens, where I live, are doing what they believe is necessary to try to keep a handle on the situation as levels of government beyond them have either dragged their feet or failed miserably.
Apart from the public health crisis, we all should be fully aware by now of how majorly disruptive this has been for business and the economy and the impact it is having on people’s jobs and livelihood. The company I work for has been greatly impacted. The business my wife works for has, too. Hopefully, the legislation passed last week by Congress and signed by the president will provide some relief for people and businesses, but at least one other round will likely be needed.
And then there’s the incredible stress all of this places on people’s psyche. I’m right there with those who feel completely overwhelmed as my wife and I juggle the demands of our full-time jobs and working mostly from home while also teaching pre-K to our son, who remains out of school for at least the next three weeks and likely longer.
But this all really is necessary to try to control the spread of this virus and hopefully save lives. It is necessary for our public safety in more ways than one.
I’ve read, for example, about police departments in some cities across the country being overrun with COVID-19. Without local restrictions in place, imagine a scenario where a waitress at a restaurant here unknowingly contracts the virus while touching a gas pump that someone else with the virus had their hands on. That is then passed on to a Winder police officer at a restaurant and they transmit it across the entire department without anyone knowing it. And suddenly several of our police are out of commission.
Scary, isn’t it?
People who haven’t already need to come to grips with the seriousness of the disease and how easily it can spread. Do your part by following the social-distancing recommendations and adhering to the orders that are in place.
As for the governor, he should use those arrows in his quiver and recognize that the longer he waits, the more suffering there will ultimately be — from both an economic and public health standpoint. And I hope the president's decision to extend the federal "social distancing" guidelines to April 30 is a sign that he will eventually recognize that need at the national level as well.
As del Rio summarized to officials on that conference call last week, this will get worse before it gets better. This will be an incredibly painful period of time for everyone, but it should be viewed as our collective moment as a people to rise to the occasion.
This pandemic will come to an end, but how long it lasts is up to us.