Georgia cities aim to slow COVID-19 with more restrictions than state

Savannah's mayor heeded the push from the association of Georgia’s thousands of city officials to shut down non-essential businesses as Gov. Brian Kemp faces criticism for not taking stronger action this week. Large conventions are already canceling April plans in Savannah. John McCosh/Georgia Recorder

Savannah Mayor Van Johnson issued a shelter-in-place directive Tuesday banning people from going out in public except for essential services while also urging the governor to order more restrictions than he did Monday to stem the spread of COVID-19.

Savannah, which imposed an initial round of COVID-19 regulations Saturday, is following the Georgia Municipal Association’s recommendations that local governments declare a public emergency so that cities are consistent in their approach to the rapidly spreading virus.

Savannah Mayor Van Johnson announces a stay at home order on Tuesday in response to the COVID-19 outbreak. He also urged Gov. Brian Kemp to impose stricter measures to prevent the spread of the diseases. screen grab City of Savannah

The Association County Commissioners of Georgia, meanwhile, issued a statement late Tuesday saying it will defer to what local officials think is best for their community. So far, at least 70 counties have declared a public health emergency. The group has already canceled its plans for a late April convention typically attended by nearly 1,000 elected officials and staffers.

The push from the association of Georgia’s thousands of city officials comes as Gov. Brian Kemp faces criticism for not taking stronger action on Monday when he announced a two-week ban on gatherings that don’t adhere to the six-foot separation rule, the closing of bars and nightclubs and a stay home order for the state’s most medically fragile residents.

The state of emergency directive is recommended by Carlos del Rio, an infectious disease expert and a professor at Emory University School of Medicine, who told the municipal association that the spread of the disease caused by the new coronavirus could overwhelm hospitals unless stronger action is taken.

“While Gov. Kemp’s executive action announced (Monday) addresses some of the critical needs in our state, I do not feel that it goes far enough in ensuring the health and safety of our citizens,” Savannah’s Johnson said during Tuesday’s announcement. “Because of this, I will be sending Gov. Kemp a letter today requesting greater state oversight and consistency in rules across the state.”

Kemp said in an interview on Tuesday with 95.5 FM WSB that it’s going to take more than government regulations to stop the spread of the disease and said there’s a delicate balance between people’s safety and limiting the economic fallout.

The shelter-in-place order for the elderly and medically fragile is based on how other states are responding and the direction Georgia’s death rate is trending, Kemp said.

“Even though most of the healthier younger population have no big issues with this in most cases, they can spread the virus to those who are medically fragile so that’s why we need to really protect the elderly, folks in nursing homes,” he said.

As the total confirmed COVID-19 cases topped 1,000 this week, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms issued a citywide stay-at-home order except for grocery shopping and other essential needs. 

Other local officials across the state were left with a tough call: Should they essentially shut down their community?  

The outbreak is expected to cause economic hardships across the state and nation as businesses close and unemployment figures rise. The city of Savannah estimates daily losses of $150,000 in city revenue.

Other communities like Columbus, Dalton and Macon-Bibb County are imposing emergency orders preventing bars, gyms, salons and barbershops and various other types of businesses from remaining open, but have refrained from implementing curfews or shelter-in-place orders.

In Monroe County, the city of Forsyth declared a state of emergency on Monday banning gatherings of 10 or more people, but it does not require any businesses to shut down or set a curfew. Georgia officials are opening a new quarantine location in Monroe County.

Cobb County Chairman Mike Boyce said Tuesday was “the make or break day” for local officials wrestling with how aggressively to respond to the COVID-19 outbreak. Screen shot of a special called Cobb County Commission meeting

In Cobb County, home to 90 of the state’s people who tested positive as of Tuesday, Commission Chairman Mike Boyce announced an emergency declaration last night that included a shelter-in-place order that his region’s top public health official urged him to issue. 

“This is not an easy call because no matter how right the decision is, we are going to impact adversely the lives of people one way or another,” Boyce said earlier at the online commission meeting.

Commissioner Lisa Cupid pressed Boyce to err on the side of tough strategies that only exempt essential workers and businesses.

“People are saying we should lean on the governor and do what the governor is suggesting, but he has 159 counties of various populations and densities,” Cupid said. “It is not for us to follow the governor. It is up to us to lead as one of the most populous and one of the most educated counties in the state of Georgia. It’s up to us to set an example for our community.”

Deputy Editor Jill Nolin contributed to this report.

Stanley Dunlap
Stanley Dunlap has covered government and politics for news outlets in Georgia and Tennessee for the past decade. At The (Macon) Telegraph he told readers about Macon-Bibb County’s challenges implementing its recent consolidation, with a focus on ways the state Legislature determines the fate of local communities. He used open records requests to break a story of a $400 million pension sweetheart deal a county manager steered to a friendly consultant. The Georgia Associated Press Managing Editors named Stanley a finalist for best deadline reporting for his story on the death of Gregg Allman and best beat reporting for explanatory articles on the 2018 Macon-Bibb County budget deliberations. The Tennessee Press Association honored him for his reporting on the disappearance of Holly Bobo, which became a sensational murder case that generated national headlines.