Patchwork Responses to Covid-19 Emerge in Georgia

(CN) — In Savannah, Georgia, the azaleas bloom white and pink in the squares for which the city is known. But few people travel the city streets now, only the occasional local riding a bike or walking a dog.

Savannah Mayor Van Johnson II issued a stay-at-home order Tuesday morning, as local governments across the state take different approaches to the coronavirus outbreak. The companies offering horse-drawn carriage rides through the streets lined with trees covered in Spanish moss are closed, according to Erica Backus, a spokesperson for Visit Savannah.

Forsyth Park in Savannah, Ga. (Photo via Fgrammen/Wikipedia)

The same goes for the tour company that hires an actor to dress as Forrest Gump and run through Chippewa Square, where the classic movie was filmed.

Chatham County, where Savannah is located, has 10 confirmed cases of the virus known as Covid-19 as of Friday afternoon, according to the Georgia Department of Public Health.

Normally, this would be a peak tourism season for Savannah, with hotel occupancy rates 80 to 85%. But the hotels are operating at about 6% capacity. According to the mayor, the city is losing $150,000 a day.

From the port city of Savannah to communities in the Blue Ridge Mountains, local governments in Georgia are weighing whether to place more restrictions on their residents to stop the spread of the coronavirus after the governor issued a limited stay-at-home order on Monday.

As governors in other states issued orders for only essential businesses to remain open and residents to shelter in place, Georgia Governor Brian Kemp — besides including provisions such as limiting groups of 10 or more people — only ordered the medically vulnerable and elderly to stay at home until April 6.

This left city councils and county commissions with many questions: Should local governments order residents to their homes? Perhaps a curfew is necessary? Or should they simply follow the guidance handed down by the White House and Atlanta?

The result has been a varying response across the state.

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms merely referenced Kemp’s March 14 state of emergency declaration when she ordered residents to stay home and for homeless residents to seek shelter Monday evening.

Tuesday was the tipping point, according to two dozen infectious disease clinicians. After that date, any delay implementing a stay-at-home order “will lead to an earlier and higher peak of infected Georgians that will completely overwhelm our hospital systems,” Bottoms’ order said.

Atlanta sits in Fulton County, which is one of two counties most affected by the spread of the coronavirus in the Peach State. On Friday afternoon, Fulton led the state with 307 confirmed Covid-19 cases.

Like Atlanta, Savannah was one of the cities to go beyond Kemp’s executive order.

A few days after it issued its order, Savannah issued a clarification — after receiving its own clarification from the state – that no, vape shops are not considered essential businesses. The follow-up order also closed barbershops and salons and opened pawn shops.

During a press conference Tuesday, Mayor Johnson asked Kemp for more state-level action to bring more consistency across Georgia, specifically mentioning there were businesses operating in the city that were not regulated by it.

At a town hall broadcast across the state Thursday evening, Kemp defended his decision to issue a limited stay-at-home order by saying he is governing a state in which there were – as of that time – 50 counties with no confirmed cases of Covid-19.

The governor said the limited order leaves him “arrows in the quiver” and he said he supported the more expansive efforts by local governments.

“It’s really up to the public to cut down on the number of people that … have to go to the hospital. And we do that by what I targeted in my order, and that was to protect the elderly and the medically fragile. That is the key to this right now,” Kemp said.

A view of Rome, Ga., from Myrtle Hill Cemetery. (Photo via Thomson200/Wikipedia)

Meanwhile, in the northwest corner of the state, the city of Rome also ordered its residents to self-isolate in an order issued Monday.

As of Friday afternoon, 20 cases were confirmed in Floyd County, where Rome is located. The week before, the federal courthouse in the city of 36,000 shut its doors because a security officer had tested positive for the virus.

On March 20, Rome and Floyd County issued a joint resolution closing restaurants to sit-down dining.

“Based on what other local health care experts have said, our commission decided that they needed to be a little stricter than what the governor had mandated,” Krisi Kent, Rome’s public information officer, said in a phone interview.

Meanwhile, Lumpkin County closely followed the guidance of the state and the White House to pass its Tuesday resolution that “highly encouraged” graveside services of 10 or fewer, authorized the sale of beer or wine with orders of take-out, and closed gyms and indoor entertainment venues.

Lumpkin County was the epicenter of the nation’s first gold rush in 1829. In recent years, it has relied on tourists gazing at its waterfalls, sipping from its local wineries and panning for residual gold. Its historical courthouse – one of the oldest in the state – houses the Dahlonega Gold Museum.

“After hearing what the CDC, President Trump, and Governor Kemp have said, the [board of commissioners] wanted to model behaviors as recommended,” Alicia Davis, the county’s director of community and employee services, said in an email.

In Lumpkin County’s seat, Dahlonega, the biggest issue facing its city council three weeks ago was a lack of parking, but now “tourist alley” is a ghost town, said Mayor Sam Norton.

The part-time mayor owns a candle store and a gift shop in the downtown area, and a restaurant that typically has a line snaking out the door. Most establishments in Dahlonega are mom-and-pop businesses, he said in a phone interview.

These days, about two or three people shop in Norton’s store that is still open, mostly “sympathy sales” by local residents, he said.

According to state law, Norton said, a local government can only be more restrictive than state and county governments. Dahlonega modeled its emergency resolution after the county’s but added to it when it loosened the procedures to acquire personal protective equipment and clarified who would lead the town should the town manager fall ill.

When taking up the resolution, the Dahlonega City Council considered placing a curfew on city residents that would start at 9 p.m., but that measure was ultimately left out.

But according to Norton, a patchwork of local responses will not help the effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus in Georgia.

“We’re hoping to get some leadership from the state or even the federal level because regardless of what we do, if our neighbor doesn’t do it or vice-versa, it’s counterproductive,” the mayor said. “So we really need the state to implement a statewide policy. And in absence of that, then we will incrementally increase our restrictions as we see fit to try to protect our citizens.”

Next week, the Dahlonega City Council will meet again — they’ve decided to meet weekly via Zoom until the coronavirus pandemic is over.

They will decide whether to pass another round of restrictions on their community, perhaps a stay-at-home order.

“It’s tough, though,” Norton said. “The reason it’s tough is in these small towns, everything is up close and personal. You know the people that you’re regulating.”

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