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Georgia to expand COVID vaccine eligibility to all people 16 and older

Gov. Brian Kemp announced Tuesday, March 23, that all Georgians ages 16 and older will now be eligible to receive a COVID-19 vaccine starting Thursday, March 25.

Speaking at the state Capitol building in Atlanta, Kemp said the state received over 450,000 vaccine doses from the federal government last week and was told by officials to expect another increase next week. He said appointments could become more difficult to find with the expansion and added that the state will continue to ship doses it receives from the federal government to the areas of highest demand around Georgia.

“Confirm your spot in line as quickly as possible,” Kemp said, adding that he would receive a vaccination dose Friday, March 26.

Kemp’s announcement comes as vaccinations are continuing to ramp up around the state and locally. As of Monday afternoon, March 22, the state had administered a little more than 3.2 million doses, with 1.14 million Georgians fully vaccinated.

There had been 12,885 doses administered in Barrow County — roughly 2,300 over the past week — as of Monday. Another 400 Barrow Countians have become fully vaccinated since March 15, bringing the total to 4,171 as of Monday afternoon, and some 1,900 county residents received their first dose over the past week.

The latest vaccine news comes as coronavirus cases remain low in the area. Nine new cases were confirmed Tuesday in Barrow County, raising the cumulative total to 8,303 confirmed cases, along with 1,062 antigen positive tests. An average of 9.6 new cases have been confirmed in the county over the past seven days — far below the mid-winter peak in January — and only 7.3% of those tested in the county over the last two weeks tested positive.

There have been 120 confirmed deaths from COVID-19 among county residents and one additional “probable” death.

Area hospitalizations from COVID-19 also remained much lower than their peak earlier this year, when hospital capacities were strained. Northeast Georgia Health System reported Tuesday morning that it was treating 42 confirmed-positive patients across its four hospitals and other facilities, while 32 were awaiting test results. The latest numbers included three confirmed-positive patients at Northeast Georgia Medical Center Barrow in Winder and 19 at NGMC Braselton.

But Dr. Kathleen Toomey, the state’s public health commissioner, cautioned that Georgians should continue to wear masks and practice social-distancing in public as the state sees increases in COVID-19 variant cases.

Toomey and Kemp also urged Georgians who have now become eligible and those who may be hesitant to get vaccinated.

“This is a medical miracle. It’s safe, it’s effective,” Kemp said of the vaccines. “This is our ticket back to normal, and we’re getting closer to that every single day.”

The Barrow County Health Department is now providing vaccinations by appointment every Wednesday at the Barrow County Leisure Services Center at Victor Lord Park, 175 2nd St., Winder.

For vaccine registration, vaccination sites and other COVID-19 information, go to dph.georgia.gov.


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Barrow planning commission recommends approval of rezoning request for new manufacturing plant to open near airport

The Barrow County Planning Commission last week recommended approval of a rezoning request that would allow a housing materials manufacturer to convert a former rail car facility near the Barrow County Airport into a new plant for the company.

During its monthly meeting March 18, the panel endorsed the request by DIV005, LLC, to rezone and change the future land-use map for 76.3 acres at 880 and 976 Airport Rd., Winder. If approved by the county board of commissioners at its meeting scheduled for April 13, the rezoning would allow for the company to repurpose the train car facility on the property that was operated by Texas-based Trinity Industries, which shuttered its Winder operations last March in order to consolidate operations at its other Georgia facility in Cartersville.

According to a letter of intent for the project, DIV005 is a manufacturer of structural metal framing materials for the construction industry, “including (the manufacturing of) cold-formed steel-framing with in-house panelization and structural steel fabrication — including columns, beams, stairs and railing, as well as decking and sheathing material and modular units.”

The company anticipates initially employing 55 people at the facility with an average wage of $20 an hour and plans to eventually increase its workforce to over 250 people as it expands operations over the next several years, said Bill Berryman, an attorney representing DIV005. The company’s investment in the facility will be north of $22 million, according to the letter of intent.

No additional buildings have been proposed on-site.

“(The former rail car facility) has long been an asset to this community and area, and we believe this proposal fits within that mold,” Berryman told the planning commission. “This carries on that tradition, and (the new plant will be) a good contributor to Barrow County.”

The planning commission recommended approval of the rezoning from M-1 (Light Industrial) to M-2 (Heavy Industrial) with a few attached conditions, including that the project be reviewed and approved by the airport authority. John Stell, an attorney for the authority’s board, said the authority supports the proposed business.

“If you look at the (county’s) land-use plan, we don’t have a character area where M-2 is primary zoning,” Stell said, adding it was an “oversight” in retrospect to classify the property M-1. “We’d like to see that facility back in business and think it’d be a great economic boon for the county.”

One of the recommended conditions that the planning commission attached — that the property be limited to manufacturing/fabrication of structural metal framing materials — drew pushback from Berryman, who said the company would like to lease out space on the property to businesses with “complementary” and “low-impact” uses while it ramps up to full production in the coming years. He said the company had offered conditions that would exclude several uses permitted in the M-2 zoning that would be “incompatible” with DIV005’s operations.

OTHER BUSINESS

In other business at its March 18 meeting, the planning commission:

•recommended approval of a request to rezone 9.5 acres at the southwest intersection of Jackson Trail Road and Highway 53 for a convenience store and office warehouse.

•recommended approval of a request by New Leaf Georgia, LLC, to rezone 13.4 acres at 1521 Doster Rd., Winder, for an 11-lot single-family subdivision.

•recommended approval of a request by Cedar Valley Properties to rezone 4.55 acres on State Route 82 near Pleasant Hill Church Road NE for six single-family homes.

•accepted the withdrawal of a request by Bright View Homes to rezone 34 acres at 1632 Austin Rd., Winder, for a 17-lot subdivision.

All of those requests will also go before the board of commissioners at its April 13 meeting.


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Hice announces run for secretary of state against Raffensperger

After echoing falsehoods about the 2020 elections in Georgia pushed by former President Donald Trump and many of his proponents over the last several months, U.S. Rep. Jody Hice announced Monday, March 22, that he will challenge incumbent Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger for the office in next year’s Republican primary.

Hice, who is in his fourth term representing Georgia’s 10th Congressional District, which includes Barrow County, quickly gained Trump’s endorsement, as well as that of the congressman’s predecessor, Paul Broun.

“Free and fair elections are the foundation of our country,” Hice said in a two-paragraph statement announcing his bid. “What Brad Raffensperger did was create cracks in the integrity of our elections, which I wholeheartedly believe individuals took advantage of in 2020. …If elected, I will instill confidence in our election process by upholding the Georgia Constitution, enforcing meaningful reform and aggressively pursuing those who commit voter fraud.”

Trump, who lost his re-election bid in November to now-President Joe Biden, became the first Republican presidential candidate to lose Georgia since 1992, and the state also elected two Democratic senators in a Jan. 5 runoff, giving the party control of both chambers of Congress. Trump repeatedly has made baseless claims of rampant voter fraud that he and many of his allies say in part robbed him of re-election and has consistently berated Raffensperger — including for his refusal to “find” him enough votes to overturn the state’s election in his favor during a recorded phone call in early January that is now the subject of an investigation by the secretary of state’s office.

State and federal officials have repeatedly said there was no evidence of widespread wrongdoing that would have altered the outcome, and two recounts affirmed Biden’s narrow margin of victory of 11,779 votes in the state. Hice, in his announcement Monday, did not cite any specific examples for his claims against Raffensperger.

Hice drew attention a few hours before the pro-Trump insurrection at the U.S. Capitol Jan. 6, when he said in a since-deleted social media message that “This is our 1776 moment.” Hours after the attack, which killed five people, including a Capitol police officer, and injured more than 140, Hice introduced an objection on the House floor to the certification of Georgia’s Electoral College votes, an effort that failed when the measure failed to gain the endorsement of a senator. In the aftermath of the attack, Hice condemned the riots but has continued, without evidence, to charge rampant voter fraud in Georgia, signing on to a since-dismissed lawsuit by the attorney general of Texas to invalidated more than 5 million Georgia ballots.

In the wake of Hice’s decision to run for secretary of state, presumably opening up the 10th Congressional District seat, several Republicans have expressed interest in running for the office. The list includes state Rep. Houston Gaines, who is in his second term representing District 117, which includes a portion of eastern Barrow County.

David Belle Isle, who lost to Raffensperger in the 2018 GOP primary, also has launched another run for secretary of state. Raffensperger has said he will run for re-election.


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Statham council rejects proposed changes to meeting, agenda procedures

A proposed beefed-up ordinance governing Statham City Council meeting and agenda procedures was met with opposition from a majority of the current council last week.

Mayor Joe Piper and city officials presented the council during its March 16 meeting with a 10-page ordinance that would have replaced the existing one. It would have placed stricter limits on late additions to meeting agendas and would have shortened the amount of time public speakers were allowed before the council at meetings.

Piper said the changes would provide more clarity and guidance on meeting procedures, as well as provide “better transparency” for the city’s citizens, while also bringing the city more in line with the state’s open-meetings laws.

But the council voted 4-1 to reject the new proposed ordinance. Councilman Gary Venable was the lone member to support it after calling for an amendment that would have reduced the number of council members required to get an item placed on a meeting agenda from two to one.

The proposed ordinance generated very little conversation among council members either at last week’s meeting or during a work session earlier this month.

Councilman Dwight McCormic, who only seconded Venable’s motion for approval in order to bring it to a vote, said he was opposed to the proposed ordinance because it was “basically redundant.” McCormic said the council has generally already been conducting its business, and members have generally been conducting themselves, according to Robert’s Rules of Order, though there have been a handful of instances in recent years of council members and citizens sniping at each other in the middle of meetings.

While the council has established Robert’s Rules of Order as the basis for its meeting procedures, city officials said those rules needed to be expanded on in writing. One of the changes would have reduced the amount of time a citizen providing public comment can address the council from five minutes to three. The change would have brought the city more in line with other local government elected bodies and their public comment procedures.

McCormic, though, said he has no issue with citizens taking longer than three minutes and said the five-minute restriction has seldom, if ever, been enforced, at least in recent years.

“If someone is on topic, and they’re being kind and courteous, we’ve seen people talk 10-12 minutes without us taking any action,” McCormic said.

Officials said there were also seeking more transparency with meeting agendas, namely with a measure that would have prevented new items from being placed on an agenda later than three days prior to a scheduled meeting, except in qualified “emergency” situations under the city’s charter.

City staffers have expressed concern that a tendency for meeting agendas to be amended after being publicly published can throw citizens for a loop.

“This would eliminate those last-minute changes, although there will sometimes be emergencies that can be handled as such,” Piper said prior to the vote.

But McCormic said he supports council members being allowed to amend the agenda after it has been published.

“(The proposed ordinance) is just too restrictive for a town our size,” he said.

OTHER BUSINESS

In other business at its meeting last week, the council:

•approved three variance requests for the planned Ellington Farms subdivision at Sunset Drive and Lillian Way. City staff recommended approval of the requests with a handful of conditions, which the applicant representative, Abe Abouhamdan, said he was agreeable to. Among those conditions: the streets will be accepted with no curb and gutter because they have connections to preexisting public streets; general maintenance bonds for the roads and a performance bond for golf cart paths and sidewalks will be required; homes will have to be constructed at a minimum of 2 feet above the highest water elevation; and stormwater retention ponds will be privately maintained.

•approved a city ordinance that gives the police department more ability to enforce against illegal parking in the city.

•approved a rezoning request for 11.6 acres on the north side of Dooley Town Road, northeast of Atlanta Highway, to allow for an office, equipment storage and repair, and welding and fabrication.


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Barrow County Museum to open for Doctors’ Day celebration next week

The Barrow County Museum will be open from 11a.m. to 4 p.m. on Tuesday, March 30, to celebrate Doctors' Day.

The museum, located on the historic county jail behind the historic courthouse in downtown Winder, has been closed during the coronavirus pandemic with the exception of special events in connection with the Barrow County Farmers Market and Train Days at the caboose museum.

Doctors' Day, now a national observance to honor physicians, was first marked in Winder in 1933 at the suggestion of Eudora Borwn Almond, wife of Dr. C.B. Almond. A dinner hosted at the home of Dr. and Mrs. W.T. Randolph was the original celebration which included placing red carnations on the graves of deceased area doctors including Dr. Crawford W. Long, who is recognized for use of sulfuric ether during the first "painless surgery" at his Jefferson office.

Masks are required at the museum and social distancing will be practiced, museum leaders said. Hand sanitizer will be available.

The museum is planning at Train Day event for April, leaders said.


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