Amid the confirmation of Georgia’s first cases of the deadly Coronavirus Disease 2019, state and local officials are closely monitoring the situation as the outbreak continues its spread across the globe.
At a news conference Monday, March 2, Gov. Brian Kemp and state public health commissioner Kathleen Toomey said two Fulton County residents living in the same household had contracted the new coronavirus, which originated in Asia and has quickly spread to several continents and more than a dozen U.S. states as of Tuesday morning, March 3. One of the residents had recently returned from Italy, where there has been a significant outbreak. Both people were described as having “mild symptoms” and are isolated at home with other relatives to keep the illness from spreading, officials said.
While many of those affected by the virus have only mild cases, the estimated death rate of 1-3 percent is high compared to the death rate for the regular flu, which kills thousands of people each year.
At the national level, the virus is already affecting international flights and disrupting some business supply lines, especially out of China where the virus began. The fear of a prolonged economic downturn due to the virus has tanked stock markets around the world, including here in the U.S.
Last week, Kemp created a state-level Coronavirus task force to begin planning for potential problems in Georgia.
“Our team has been working around the clock to prepare for any scenario. Already, state health officials have established contact with these individuals (with confirmed cases) to gather more information, monitor their condition, and determine any exposure,” Kemp said in the Monday news conference. “They are confident that our efforts to prepare for this moment have enabled us to manage these cases appropriately and minimize any risks moving forward. We remain in constant communication with our partners at all levels of government, and we will continue to update members of the public as information becomes available.”
Penny Clack, the emergency management director for Barrow County, said the Department of Public Health (DPH) would take the lead in the event of a local outbreak.
“We have been in discussions with the health department and others and at this time we are reviewing our pandemic flu plans and utilizing them as a guide,” Clack said. “We will continue to monitor the situation and communicate with all those that would be responding to any outbreaks. We also will be monitoring news reports and information released by the CDC.
“Like many organizations, the biggest thing we are doing at this point is encouraging good hygiene — hand washing, don’t touch your face, etc., and social distancing.”
The virus spreads through the air when an infected person coughs or sneezes, according to a DPH news release, which added that symptoms appear within two to 14 days after exposure and include fever, cough, runny nose and difficulty breathing. People considered at risk for contracting the virus are those who travel to areas with ongoing outbreaks or those in close contact with an infected person.
Capt. Scott Dakin, public information officer for Barrow County Emergency Services, said there aren't currently any public meetings on the virus planned in the county, but said the county's 911 center is asking two additional questions when receiving calls for possible symptoms:
•Have you traveled outside of the country in the last 14 days?
•Have you been in close contact with anyone that has traveled outside of the country within the last 14 days?
"If they answer yes to either question, the information will be sent to the responding units who will follow CDC guidelines for EMS response to COVID-19," Dakin said.
The DPH recommends these best practices:
•Wash your hands often with soap and warm water for at least 20 seconds. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
•Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands.
•Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
•Stay home when you are sick.
•Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue, then throw the tissue in the trash.
•Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces.
The department also recommends getting a flu shot. While the shot will not protect against the coronavirus, it could prevent serious complications that require hospitalization and therefore prevent overburdening the health care system in the event of a coronavirus outbreak, officials said.
Also on Monday, Northeast Georgia Medical Center put out a news release that “debunk common myths” about the coronavirus.
Those clarifications included:
•Wearing a facemask isn’t guaranteed to help shield people from contracting the virus.
•The flu vaccine won’t protect people from the virus.
•Antibiotics are not effective against the virus and are instead intended to treat bacterial infections. Unnecessary antibiotic use could lead to the development of resistant bacteria and other complications.
•There is no evidence that the virus can be transmitted through packages or letters or similar objects through the mail, according to the World Health Organization.
•Not everyone who gets the virus dies. The risk of hospitalization or mortality is higher in elderly patients and those with other chronic medical conditions. More than 80 percent of the coronavirus patients have mild, flu-like symptoms.
•Spraying alcohol, chlorine or bleach all over the body will not kill any viruses that have already entered the body or protect from those who could have the virus.
For updated information about the new virus,go to dph.georgia.gov/novelcoronavirus or cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/about/index.html. You can also find answers to frequently asked questions at cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/about/index.html.
Mike Buffington contributed to this story.
As it sat in disrepair for years and with the City of Winder unable to find anyone who could make use of it, the iconic Peskin building on East Athens Street seemed destined to be torn down and erased from the downtown landscape.
But in April 2016 a construction company owner, who had recently moved to town from Gwinnett County, stepped into the building he had grown intrigued by and immediately saw a future for it.
Nearly three years after the city council agreed to give it to him, and north of $3 million in investment later, Daniel Diaz has transformed the more than 80-year-old former department store into what is once again becoming a key focal point downtown.
“When I first saw it, I asked (real estate agent Mike Rice) about it and said, ‘I wish somebody would get me a building like that one day,” Diaz said last month, sitting in his company conference room on the third floor. “And I remember the first day going up to the rooftop and looking around and thinking this building really had a lot of potential.”
Certificates of occupancy were issued for the building in December. A steakhouse — Latin Flavors — opened on the first floor and has become an immediate hit, along with an accompanying basement bar and rooftop lounge. A special-event space, an idea spearheaded by Diaz’s wife, is now on the second floor, where the local Masonic Lodge and Eastern Star chapter used to meet. And the offices for Diaz’s several companies are on the third floor.
A native of Panama, Diaz came to the U.S. when he was 19 years old and lived with his mother in Mississippi, where he went to college. In 1994, when he was 23, he moved to Atlanta with $700 in his pocket, almost all of which he says went toward a room at the cheapest hotel he could find, a car and gas.
More than 25 years later, Diaz, who started from the bottom up, runs his own construction companies and has purchased and renovated several buildings in downtown Winder since moving to town in 2015 for what he describes as a more business-friendly environment.
From the time he arrived, Diaz says, it was the Peskin building, which had sat vacant for years and had a damaged roof and flooded basement, that really caught his eye and sparked his imagination.
With the help of Rice, Diaz engaged in talks with the city, which had taken ownership of the building in June 2015, about purchasing and reviving it. In December 2016, the city council voted to give the building to Diaz for $1 with conditions that he repurpose it into a combination of restaurant and commercial/office space, and that he start the work within 90 days.
Diaz got to work immediately.
“The day after we closed on the building with the city, I started working on it,” said Diaz, who had to oversee a more costly-than-expected, total structural renovation from the inside.
It was when he started work on the building, Diaz said, that he began to learn more of the history of the building and its namesake from the locals.
Businessman Henry Peskin had arrived in Winder in 1929 and opened his department store in the building in 1936, according to the 1983 book “Beadland to Barrow,” compiled by the Barrow County Historical Society. The book described the store as northeast Georgia’s first “Bargain Basement,” where people could buy “quality” merchandise at affordable prices.
In 1955, Peskin’s daughter and son-in-law Florence Peskin Schwartz and Sanford Schwartz took over management of the store, and a third generation of the family took over in 1970 with Ronnie Schwartz. The store closed in January 1990 and the building had been vacant since then prior to the renovation.
“As I started taking the inside of the building down, so many people were stopping me right out in front and telling me they were glad I was saving the building," Diaz said. "A lot of people had good and fond memories of Henry Peskin and going there. I think people saw it deteriorating so badly and they never could have imagined someone could come and do this.
“When people were stopping by and telling me everything they remembered, I knew that I was saving something that was important to the people of Winder.”
Long-time city councilman Sonny Morris said Diaz turned out to be the right man to renovate the building.
“I think it’s one of the better things we’ve done since I’ve been on there,” Morris said. “It’s turned out very well for us, and I think he’s made that building something the whole city can be proud of.”
Sitting in the same conference room with Diaz, Rice recalled his days working at Peskin’s as a teenager and remembered Peskin as a kind, generous man.
Peskin was known for giving cartons of cigarettes and care packages to local soldiers who went off to war and helped many others through their struggles over the years.
“The Peskins and Schwartzes were good to our community,” Rice said.
Morris agreed, adding that there was even more generosity behind the scenes.
“(The store) was probably one of the last places you could go and get a charge account set up and pay whatever you could pay, whenever you could pay it,” he said. “That family did a lot that some people just don’t have an idea, back in the day when it was really tough.”
So perhaps it’s only appropriate that both men see the same spirit of generosity — and humility — in Diaz.
Diaz has helped people in his buildings get their businesses off the ground, including the steakhouse, and will have the same concept in two other spaces he is renovating for restaurants on Jackson Street — a Mexican-style grille and a health-food café.
“He’ll do everything and build something the way people want it,” Rice said. “He makes it where they can just start and go to work right away.”
For Diaz, the financial assistance and investment is a way of both putting his deep religious faith into action and seeing Winder become more vibrant.
“I came here (to the U.S.) with nothing and it wasn’t easy. But with the opportunities and doors that have opened for me, if God gives you so much in life, you have to give back,” said Diaz, who also delivers food and diapers every year to people in need in Panama. He remembers the helplessness he felt when he didn’t have the money to save his grandmother’s house there after she died and says that motivates him to give back to the community.
“I fell in love with Winder and how the people treated and welcomed me here, and I wanted to put 110 percent into this building and give the town something special,” Diaz said. “You don’t have to tear down old buildings to make parking. I get the most satisfaction out of seeing those business owners I help smile and their dreams come true. I want to help them grow so there is a better Winder for all of us — because everyone benefits that way.
“I want the whole town to have a life.”
And the efforts of Diaz and others like Wes VanKirk have helped bring a new life to downtown, Rice said.
“You can see people walking around down here at night again,” Rice said. “Without them and the investment they’ve made down here, I don’t know where we would be.”
“I can’t say enough about (Diaz),” Morris said. “He’s a very patient, Christian person. He took a lot of pride in the building and was out there working, hands-on, every day. He put his life and soul into it, and at the end of the day I’m just amazed at what he’s done.”
Morris and Diaz agreed the project wasn’t always easy and had several various construction- and inspection-related hiccups along the way. But ultimately, Diaz said, the venture was worth it and just part of an overall vision.
“Winder is growing. It is changing and it’s changing for the good,” he said. “There’s a lot of good people here who want to make Winder better. We are making a difference.
“And I’m happy to be a part of that difference.”
The City of Winder’s search for a new administrator is officially underway, and city leaders are hoping the vacancy will be filled within the next few months or sooner.
A job description including qualifications for the position and other information was posted to the city’s website Feb. 24 and is calling for applications to be submitted by March 23.
The city is looking for a new administrator following the resignation of Donald Toms last month. Toms, who had been with the city since 2010, informed Mayor David Maynard and the city council Feb. 4 that he was stepping down. The resignation took effect Feb. 19, and Maynard has been handling the bulk of the administrator duties since then.
Toms’ decision came the day after the council held a closed session at the end of a regularly-scheduled work session to discuss personnel among other topics.
The mayor, Toms and council members declined to disclose what was discussed during that session, but Toms told the Barrow News-Journal on Feb. 5 that he was planning to seek other career opportunities.
Though Toms had the backing of the mayor and a majority of the council in recent years, the city government’s leadership and decision-making had been a point of contention during the last couple of election cycles. Since January 2018, the six-member council has had four new members come on board. Jimmy Terrell and Chris Akins were elected in 2017 to replace Ridley Parrish and Bob Dixon, respectively. And last November, Kobi Kilgore defeated incumbent councilman Al Brown, while Holly Sheats won an election to replace Michael Healan, who did not seek re-election. Terrell in particular has criticized the city’s spending on certain projects and in certain areas during his first term on the council.
The posted job qualifications call for applicants to hold a bachelor's degree in public administration, business finance or a related field, with a master's degree in public administration or a related field preferred. Applicants should also have at least five years of experience in a governmental management role, according to the listed qualifications.
“We’re looking for high-quality experience in managing a city with this big of a budget and over 100 employees,” said city councilman and Mayor Pro Tem Sonny Morris, who is part of a committee set up by a city ordinance, along with Maynard and Akins, that will conduct interviews of any selected finalists. “We want to take our time and find the right person and not just jump into something. A person with good people skills and who’s familiar with managing utilities will be important.”
The city’s human resources director will receive the applications and screen the applicants before submitting them to the committee, Maynard said. Morris said he’d ideally like to see 3-5 qualified candidates interviewed.
“If we can find some good (applicants) in the next 30 days, we’ll move forward from there,” Maynard said. “I don’t know what that looks like yet, but we’re going to be looking for someone who is going to be comfortable and well-versed in managing a city this size.”
The mayor said he ultimately would like to involve “at least one or two” of the city’s department heads in the interview process as well.
The Winder City Council is generally supportive of the city building a dog park, but it is not likely to be located near the railroad tracks downtown as proposed.
During a work session Monday, March 2, the council briefly discussed a proposal to build a dog park on vacant city property between the city hall annex and railroad tracks on North Jackson Street. The cost of the project — between fencing and various stations at the park — would be $19,700, according to a preliminary estimate obtained by the city. A total budget of $24,000 was recommended for the project.
A dog park has been on the city’s radar in recent months. During a strategic planning workshop on Feb. 19, a Georgia Department of Community Affairs representative suggested to the council that a dog park in the downtown area would help the city with one of its primary goals of attracting more people to the downtown area and businesses.
But the project and proposed location drew a mixed reaction on a social media page over the last week, with negative comments centering largely around the proximity to the tracks and the potential negative impact on dogs. Councilwoman Holly Sheats said she had received similar feedback.
A dog park is currently planned as part of the ongoing voter-approved expansion of Victor Lord Park by Barrow County, and some council members said it would be better to locate any dog park further away from that one.
Councilman Jimmy Terrell suggested the city could look at other locations away from the downtown area such as City Pond Park or land near the utilities and public works complex off Miles Patrick Road.
The council is likely to discuss potential locations at future work sessions. Sheats said she would like to hear community feedback at those sessions.
Also Monday, the council agreed to get public feedback on potential names for the new pedestrian plaza along Jackson Street between Midland Avenue and Candler Street, which is scheduled to be completed within the next couple of months. “Midland Depot” has been suggested among the council, but the city will likely come up with a few options and poll residents on social media.
At the end of Monday’s work session, the council held a closed session to discuss potential disposition of real estate. No action was taken.
In business at its Tuesday, March 3 voting session, the council:
•extended a moratorium on certain building permit applications and zoning applications until June 3 as the city works to update its comprehensive zoning ordinance. The moratorium prohibits exterior building wall finish materials other than brick, stone, stucco (excluding EIFS) or masonry siding in residential or commercial zoning districts. The council is planning one more work session on the zoning ordinance updates later this month, followed later by a called meeting to vote on the first reading of the updates and then a final vote at its April 7 meeting.
•approved amendments to the city’s fire code, including a new section on open burning. According to the new code, a burn permit will be required for all outdoor burning within the city limits, to be obtained from the fire department headquarters. Permits will be free and will expire Dec. 31 of each year. Recreational fires that are approved by the fire chief are not required to have a permit. Burning is banned from May 1 through Sept. 30 of each year. Burning in a barrel is prohibited, and only burning of natural hand-piled vegetation is allowed. Violators will be faced with a $250 fine per violation, and each day a violation occurs will be considered a separate violation.
•approved an event permit request submitted by the city and the Winder Downtown Business Association for Food Truck Saturdays during the month of April. The events will take place from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. April 4, 11, 18 and 25. There will be street closures on North Jackson Street between East Athens and East Candler streets and on East Candler between the gazebo parking lot and the police department parking lot.
•approved an event permit request submitted by the city and the Winder Downtown Business Association for the 2020 Summer Concert Series from 7-10 p.m. on June 5, July 3 and Aug. 7. The council also approved an alcohol zone for the concerts.
•ratified a memorandum of understanding (MOU) for a grant application for the Winder Fire Department to receive two Lucas chest compression devices in exchange for paying a 10-percent match. The city’s portion will be approximately $3,200.