Georgia mayors say Kemp’s order to lift business restrictions unwelcome

Rome Mayor Bill Collins said he couldn’t believe his ears this week when he heard the governor's new order means lifting restrictions that will open up the retail strip along Broad Street downtown, including restaurants that can resume seating customers next Monday. John McCosh/Georgia Recorder

Gov. Brian Kemp drew wide skepticism this month when he said he held off on a statewide stay-home order because he didn’t know infected people who feel well can transmit the novel coronavirus, and now he’s drawing criticism from mayors in cities stretching from Albany to Rome who say he rushed this week to lift restrictions on closed businesses. 

The governor’s order announced Monday allows massage parlors, gyms and bowling alleys and others shuttered to contain the novel coronavirus outbreak to reopen as soon as Friday. Customers can return to restaurants and theaters that decide to open as soon as this Monday.

Rome Mayor Bill Collins said he couldn’t believe his ears when news of the announcement reached his north Georgia city Wednesday.

“We were told in the beginning by the same governor that the cities and counties know best how their community is,” Collins said. “He didn’t want to act, so we acted, we were one of the first cities to act and put restrictions in place, and we were following the advice of our medical community. When we got this news, I don’t know how to describe it. It was different.”

About 200 miles to the south in Dougherty County, Albany’s mayor is similarly dumbfounded at the governor’s decision to ease restrictions on businesses in his community, where the COVID-19 disease is overwhelming health care providers.

“Most local officials expected Gov. Kemp to announce that there would be a gradual reopening for business beginning on April 30, after the shelter in place order expired,” said Albany Mayor Bo Dorough. “But basically, Gov. Kemp took pre-emptive action that I believe rescinded the executive order requiring shelter in place.”

Dougherty is home to 103 deaths attributed COVID-19, the most of any county in the state as of Tuesday night. Dorough said he plans to ask for an exemption from Kemp’s order for his hard-hit city, but he’s heard it won’t be granted, and local leaders do not have the authority to make their own decisions on the restrictions.

And in central Georgia, the Macon-Bibb Commission voted Tuesday night to ask the governor to reconsider lifting restrictions now. Mayor Robert Reichert’s city issued a stay-home order March 23 and expressed surprise local elected officials can’t decide what’s best for their communities.

However, since his initial shelter-in-place order Kemp maintained that his order needs to apply statewide to avoid a hodgepodge of confusing rules across local jurisdictions.

“This measure will apply statewide and will be the operational standard in all jurisdictions,” Kemp said as he announced the plan Monday. “This means local action cannot be taken that is more or less restrictive.”

Even before Kemp issued his stay-home order April 2, local governments tried to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus in their communities with their own restrictions.

Not that all Georgia mayors feel like they’ve lost local control. Some celebrated the governor’s upcoming easing of restrictions.

Marietta Mayor Steve Tumlin applauded the move and its mandatory nature, saying anything less would have led to a hodgepodge of different restrictions in different places.

“We went through that weeks ago,” Tumlin said. “Us and Cobb County and the other five cities all had their own rules. Then the governor stepped up and said stay in place, which was very acceptable at that time, and we were happy with it, because with six cities with six different rules, and this being a crisis, I did not see this as a loss of local control, but a gain toward it being uniform and people being able to understand it and comply with it.”

Tumlin called the move “a good first step,” and said how quickly the state can take further steps depends on whether citizens practice healthy habits like handwashing and social distancing.

Albany’s Dorough said he sympathizes with the tough job Kemp has trying to weigh the hardships of business owners cut off from customers against the ongoing public health threat posed by the spread of COVID-19 disease. But he said the governor’s revised order is too soon. 

“Initially, the governor’s position, and I think he was so slow to act, was that local governments should be responsible for addressing the virus in their communities,” Dorough said. “It is irresponsible insofar you have locales like Albany where we remain a hotspot. We are not ready for people to go back to barbershops and beauty shops.”

Atlanta’s mayor appeared shoulder to shoulder with Kemp and other officials at the state Capitol during the first half of March as officials showed growing public concern about how the novel coronavirus might spread in Georgia. But like the other mayors from smaller towns, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms was left out of the loop.

“I have a great working relationship with our governor, but I did not speak with him before he made this announcement,” Bottoms told CNN during primetime news Monday night. “I spoke with Mayor Hardie Davis who is the mayor of Augusta, Georgia, the second largest city in the state, he did not speak with the governor. … We really are at a loss, and I am concerned as a mother and as the mayor of our capital city.”

Ocilla Mayor Matt Seale and his wife run a shop and café in a historic building. Seale said he applauds the announcement, but he’s not sure if his dining room will be open Monday.

“I haven’t made a final decision on that, to be perfectly honest,” he said. “We just have to make sure that if we open it, we can enforce the social distancing requirements that will still be enforced. And we want to make sure that we can do that. So if we feel like we can, and then yes, if we feel like that it’s going to be too tempting for people to get close together, then we definitely want to make sure we’re not enabling that.”

Other mayors are taking a wait-and-see approach until the public health crisis is over.

“What I do know is that Governor Kemp was willing to make a difficult decision knowing that he could never satisfy everyone and that I have absolutely no evidence he made the wrong decision at this time,” said Alpharetta Mayor Jim Gilvin.

Ross Williams
Before joining the Georgia Recorder, Ross Williams covered local and state government for the Marietta Daily Journal.Williams' reporting took him from City Hall to homeless camps, from the offices of business executives to the living rooms of grieving parents. His work earned recognition from the Georgia Associated Press Media Editors and the Georgia Press Association, including beat reporting, business writing and non-deadline reporting. A native of Cobb County, Williams holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Atlanta's Oglethorpe University and a master’s in journalism from Northwestern University.