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Winder, Statham enact curfew, other measures

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.

RESOURCES

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.

Continue to visit cdc.gov and dph.georgia.gov for COVID-19 information.

Mike Buffington contributed to this story. 


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Mobile unit operational at NGMC Braselton

Northeast Georgia Health System leaders are fighting to get ahead of the spread of COVID-19.

Mobile units — which will allow the hospital system to treat additional patients and adapt to changing needs — are operational at both Northeast Georgia Medical Center Braselton and Gainesville.

The two units, which were provided by the Georgia Department of Public Health, both have 13 spaces for patients. (That’s in addition to the 84 emergency beds and 15 hall spaces at NGMC Gainesville, and 21 beds and 10-12 hallway spaces at NGMC Braselton.)

Dr. Mohak Dave’, chief of emergency medicine, said the units will allow the hospital to adapt to whatever circumstances come up in the future.

“In emergency medicine, our job is to be prepared. We can’t predict the future, but we have to be prepared,” he said in a press conference held last week.

The negative-pressure units will allow the hospital to cohort patients with respiratory-type symptoms, to avoid exposure to patients, staff and the community. Higher-acuity patients will still continue to be triaged and receive the level of care needed, Dave’ said.

The additional mobile units will allow the hospital additional capacity, he added.

“As we have seen in a pandemic situation, you need capacity,” said Dr. Dave'. “You have to be able to adapt to what the capacity needs are at the time.”

Dr. Shravan Kethireddy, medical director of critical care services, noted the health system has been proactive and aggressive in its fight against the spread of COVID-19. He cited the situation in Italy, which has seen exponential growth in its number of cases and an overwhelmed healthcare system.

“Their exponential growth was unprecedented,” said Dr. Kethireddy. “And even though (Italy was) prepared, it quickly overwhelmed the healthcare system …. It is with that concern that we’ve acted with the level of urgency and need that you see here.”

STAY HOME

Area healthcare workers are taking on a variety of non-traditional roles as the normal rhythm is disrupted at NGHS.

“I’ve found that the medical staff has been willing to step up and participate in this response in ways that many of us haven’t necessarily done before,” said chief of staff Dr. Cliff Hastings.

Additionally, Dr. Dave’ recognized first responders and urgent care staff members who are also part of the effort.

“They’re fighting this fight with us as well,” said Dr. Dave'.

But the fight against the spread of COVID-19 isn’t just the responsibility of the area healthcare system and first responders. It’s also the responsibility of the community.

During the press conference, several NGHS staff members cited the critical need for community members to adhere to the CDC guidelines on social distancing, quarantining and hand-washing.

Sean Couch, director of public relations and marketing, urged those with symptoms to isolate and monitor those symptoms at home. Couch noted that recommendation is different than what is most often recommended for people who are sick.

“But this is a different situation,” said Couch.

If someone feels they need medical attention, they’re asked to call a doctor or urgent care first to get advice on how to proceed.

“This is our window of time. We have an opportunity here to collectively come together as a community, as a state, as a nation to really follow these directions for care and social isolation,” said Couch. “And if we can achieve that together, we can help prevent the spread and hopefully prevent us moving to a case where our health systems are overwhelmed. If we move to that point, unfortunately, our caregivers are going to be faced with making some very difficult decisions about who receives care. None of us want to get to that point.”

For up-to-date information from NGHS on its COVID-19 response, visit nghs.com/covid-19.


News
All county facilities closed to public except judicial courthouse

Barrow County manager Mike Renshaw announced last week that all county facilities, with the exception of the Judicial Courthouse, which is operating under a statewide Judicial Emergency Declaration, will be closed to the public until further notice.

The closure took effect Friday, March 20.

Renshaw’s announcement comes amid the worldwide coronavirus pandemic. The decision is based upon recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control, which is recommending that public gatherings be restricted to less than 10 and that “social distancing” be practiced, he said.

The board of commissioners work session scheduled for Tuesday, March 24, has been canceled. Its next meeting will be April 14. The board will hold just one voting session per month until further notice.

“Adequate staffing levels within all county departments will be maintained to provide continuity of services to our customers by phone or email,” Renshaw said in a news release. “We are also encouraging the public to make use of U.S. mail, online payment and transaction services offered on the county website, or payment drop boxes such as for county utility payments which may be dropped off at 625 Hwy. 211 NE, Winder."

The county’s COVID-19 Task Force will continue to monitor conditions within the community and provide updates via the county’s Facebook page and website, Renshaw said.

In order to contact a county office for service or questions, go to www.barrowga.org and click on “Departments” for a menu and all contact information. You may also contact the main desk by calling 770-307-3000 for operator assistance.

“We sincerely apologize for any inconvenience associated with this closure, and encourage all of our residents to be safe and to follow CDC-recommended preventative measures to stop the spread of the COVID-19 virus,” Renshaw said.

OTHER COUNTY GOVERNMENT UPDATES

•All emergency response services are continuing with extra safety precautions in place. Access has been restricted at all emergency response facilities and the 911 Center. Signs have been posted on the front door of all fire stations advising people on how to contact those inside the station. All Barrow County Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) trainings and meetings are canceled until the end of March. Open-records requests should be made online through the county’s website, and requestors will be contacted to make arrangements for receiving their documents.

•All plans for the fire marshal’s office should be sent by courier, and contractors must call before they come to pick up plans to arrange a time for pickup. All routine fire life safety code inspections of existing buildings has been suspended until the end of March. Contractors or business owners requiring a certificate of occupancy inspection should contact the fire marshal by phone to discuss options for an inspection.

•The Magistrate’s Office is continuing “essential court functions,” including bond hearings and search and arrest warrants. All other “non-essential” functions are on hold until at least April 13.

•The Probate Court is only performing “essential” functions, defined as emergency adult guardianship/conservatorship matters, permanent guardianship/conservatorship petitions with accusations of abuse, neglect or harm, medical consent guardianships, and orders to apprehend. All trials and hearings scheduled during the closure period are continued until further order of the court, and only emergency hearings will be scheduled. The court is accepting estate/guardianship filings by self-represented litigants by appointment only. All probate courts in the state are temporarily suspending acceptance of applications for weapons carry licenses and license renewals. License expiration dates during the statewide judicial emergency period (April 13) will be extended 30 days. Marriage licenses will be issued by appointment only to couples whose marriage ceremony will occur on or before April 13. Marriage licenses for ceremonies occurring after April 13 will not be issued until April 14. The issuance of birth, death and marriage certificates shall be appointment only. The office urges that all matters be handled by phone or mail if possible.

•All Barrow County Leisure Services activities and programs are canceled through March 29 and are tentatively scheduled to resume March 30; however, that is subject to change.

•At the Senior Citizens Center, Meals on Wheels is being delivered by staff daily to all senior center members (regular home-delivered meal seniors and congregant seniors who normally drive to the center or are picked up by center buses and driven to the center). Meal deliveries will be added to any county senior who is not currently served but is in need. The members who have chosen not to receive meals are being called daily for a wellness check. The center is also in communication with the Northeast Georgia Area Agency on Aging and is referring any seniors with special needs (home-based services, housing options, transportation, respite care, personal care services, Medicare counseling, etc.).

•At the Barrow County Sheriff’s Office, the front lobby of the BCSO headquarters, 233 East Broad St., Winder, is closed to the public until further notice. Anyone who needs to request a copy of an incident or accident report can do so by going to www.barrowsheriff.com and clicking on the Open Records Request tab. You may also email or call Aleshia Royal at aroyal@barrowsheriff.com and 770-307-3080, Ext. 5749, or Regina Hall at rhall@barrowsheriff.com and 770-307-3080, Ext. 4992 to request a copy of an Incident or accident report. There is a $5 charge for all accident reports, and the department accepts debit or credit card payments over the phone.

•At the Barrow County Detention Center, 652 Barrow Park Dr., Winder, the public lobby is closed to the general public except for bonding purposes. Visitation with inmates has been suspended effective immediately. If you have an inmate you would like to visit via the internet, you can set that up at www.securus.net. If you need to place money on the books of an inmate, go to www.jailatm.com. You must have the inmate’s ID number in order to set up either of these accounts mentioned. You may also call the Detention Center at 770-307-3090 for questions or more information. Each inmate being brought in is being screened for fever by medical staff and is answering COVID-19 screening questions. Deputies are also vetting calls in some cases and, if they can, they are doing the report over the phone. The sheriff’s department is also assessing each call and trying to avoid going into someone’s home unless they have to, officials say.

•At the Tax Commissioner’s Office, the lobby is closed to the public. You may renew your tag online with a valid driver’s license and your tag number at the following link: https://dor.georgia.gov/motor-vehicles/drives-e-services. Or you may renew your tag over the phone at 770-307-3106. You may also renew your tag through the mail. Any renewals received will be processed and mailed out within 24 hours of receipt. If you have purchased a car through a casual sale (not a dealership), call 770-307-3106 and choose the tag option for a temporary tag. Have your title readily available, along with driver’s license, and insurance information. For more information, you may email one of the following: pjones@barrowga.org, klcooper@barrowga.org, jhoward@barrowga.org, pwilliams@barrowga.org or awages@barrowga.org. For dealerships, the office will have a drop box for title work in the hallway outside the door. Include your contact number for any questions that may arise. You can call 770-307-3106, ext. 8971 to let the office know you’ve dropped the paperwork off. You may also email ccofer@barrowga.org with general questions. If you have a property tax payment, you may pay that online at www.barrowgatax.org. You may pull your bill by bill number, name or address. You can also call 770-307-3016, ext. 3818 or ext. 3820 and choose the option for property taxes to pay over the phone.

•Per the recommendation of the National Animal Care and Control Association, Barrow County Animal Control officers are only responding to high-priority/emergency calls, including law enforcement assistance, injured or sick stray animals, cruelty and neglect complaints, bite complaints, and dangerous and aggressive dog complains. Low-priority/non-emergency responses have been suspended, including non-aggressive stray animal pickup, leash law and licensing complaints, barking and nuisance complains, trapping and transport of community cats, and conflict mitigation scenarios. The department is also reducing “nonessential” shelter intake and encouraging owners who are ill to keep their pets at home whenever possible.


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All Georgia voters to receive absentee ballot request forms

All 6.9 million active voters in Georgia will be mailed absentee ballot request forms in a strong effort to encourage people to vote from home amid the coronavirus pandemic, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger announced Tuesday, March 24.

The state had already pushed back its presidential preference primary election, which was to be held Tuesday, to May 19 to coincide with the statewide general primary election. Early voting and election day precincts will remain open, and early voting is scheduled to begin April 27. But now voters will be able to decide on their ballot choices from home.

“Times of turbulence and upheaval like the one we Georgians face require decisive action if the liberties we hold so dear are to be preserved,” Raffensperger said in a news release. “I am acting today because the people of Georgia, from the earliest settlers to heroes like Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Congressman John Lewis, have fought too long and too hard for their right to vote to have it curtailed. Georgia has faced challenges before and overcome them, and we can do so again through the grit and ingenuity that has made America a shining example for democracies around the world.”

Voters will need to return their request forms with their party of choice marked, in order to receive an actual ballot.

"I believe this is a wonderful thing for all Georgia voters; I would encourage all Barrow County voters to complete the absentee ballot application," Barrow County elections director Monica Franklin said in an email. "Request the ballot be mailed directly to your home or post office and do not risk getting out to cast a ballot in person either during advance voting or on Election Day.

"When completing the application, our office would ask that voters provide a valid phone number and/or a valid email address, if something needs clarification on the application, we can reach out and resolve any questions quickly; otherwise it might take days to even weeks to resolve."

Completed applications can be returned by dropping them off in an outside dropbox at the Barrow elections office, 233 East Broad St., Winder; by mail; email at evote@barrowga.org; fax at 770-307-1054 or taking a picture of the completed application with a smart phone and emailing it to the office.

For more information or questions call 770-307-3110.

Anyone over 65 or with a disability can request absentee ballots through the entire 2020 election cycle, including the November general election, with their application. Others will need to submit another application for future elections, according to the release. All Georgia voters can request and vote an absentee ballot for any reason.

Georgians who need language assistance and people with disabilities or others who rely on voting machines to cast their ballot will still be able to do so in person on the state’s new voting system, the release said.

Raffensperger said extra precautions will be put in place at polling locations to limit the threat of COVID-19. Poll workers will receive additional resources to clean the equipment regularly. And voters who show up to vote in person will be instructed to maintain a safe distance when waiting to vote.