City officials: ‘Handcuffed’ by Kemp’s call to open economy

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By Tia Lynn Ivey 

managing editor

After Georgia Gov Brian Kemp made a controversial announcement Monday to allow certain businesses to reopen this coming Friday in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, local governments say they are “handcuffed” by the executive order, unable to enact shutdowns and other mitigation policies for their own communities. Kemp’s announcement comes just three weeks after he ordered a Shelter-in-Place order to last until April 30, and yet, certain businesses will be allowed to open as early as Friday, April 24. 

Kemp, in an effort to “restart the economy,” will allow certain businesses, including gyms, hair salons, nail salons, massage parlors, barbers bowling alleys, and tattoo parlors to reopen first.Movie Theaters will be allowed to reopen on Monday April 27 and restaurants will be allowed to conducted “limited dine-in” services. Bars, nightclubs, and concert venues will remained closed for now. 

“In the same way that we carefully closed businesses and urged operations to end to mitigate the virus’s spread, today we’re announcing plans to incrementally and safely reopen sectors of our economy,” Kemp said.

Kemp urged the elderly and medically fragile to continue sheltering in place until May 13, when Georgia’s public health emergency is set to expire. 

Churches are allowed to hold in-person services. 

“It must be done in accordance with strict social distancing protocols. I urge faith leaders to continue to help us in this effort to keep their congregation safe by heading the advice of public health officials,” Kemp said. “Of course, online, call-in and drive-in services remain a good option for religious institutions.”

City of Madison officials spoke out against the Governor’s decision, but are powerless to deter it. 

“Unfortunately, it is out of our hands,” said Madison Mayor Fred Perriman. ““I don’t agree with the governor’s decision but he is the governor. However, I urge people to continue to take precautions and I would suggest we pay attention to what the CDC is telling us, the health experts. We don’t want to rush into things, and I hope our businesses will just take their time in reopening and take every precaution available.”

City Councilman Eric Joyce warned that Governor’s decision could lead to a worsening of the coronavirus outbreak. 

“I was very disappointed in his announcement. I think it will inevitably lead to a greater rate of infection in Morgan County and in Madison, but we are sort of handcuffed in what we can do about it now.”

Joyce quested the wisdom of the Governor’s decision in light of federal recommendations and the warnings of health experts. 

“This order seems to violate the federal guidelines that states need to see 13 days of declining infection numbers before they open up businesses,” said Joyce. “We haven’t had that. This decision is contrary to that. I am also disappointed that it appears that our local powers are taken away to make some of these decisions on behalf of our citizens.” 

Councilwoman Chris Hodges would have preferred the shutdown order to remain in place, but encourages people to stay vigilant by following social distancing recommendations on their own. 

“Personally, I was hoping for longer,’ said Hodges of Georgia’s Shelter-in-Place order. “But he’s the Governor and I respect his decision.   I believe our local early mitigation efforts helped blunt the curve.   Let’s hope new habits have been embraced and our numbers remain low with no deaths.”

Morgan County officials are also urging citizens to take precautions as the state loosens restrictions and reopens businesses. 

“I understand why it needs to be a statewide standard,” said County Commissioner Philipp von Hanstein. “When each city or county is doing their own thing, people get confused and are unsure whether or not they are in violation as they go into different communities.”

County Manager Adam Mestres will continue to update the community on the spread of COVID-19 locally and is urging people to continue following CDC recommendations. 

“We will comply with the Governor’s order,” said Mestres. “Locally, we will continue to encourage our residents and our visitors to follow best practices issued by the CDC related to social distancing. We all still have our part to do even though the order is being loosened and will soon be lifted.”

Madison City Manager David Nunn is worried that the Governor’s order is “counterintuitive” since the first wave of businesses slated to reopened pose high risks for the contagious coronavirus to spread, such as restaurants, theaters, tattoo parlors and bowling alleys. 

“To be perfectly honest with you, every business is going to have to assess their own risks for themselves, their employees, and their customers,” said Nunn. “We just want this to be fair and to be safe. We cannot and should not move so quickly. I fear if we do that we will find ourselves back under the wave again.”

Nunn also worried the governor’s order further erodes local control. “Local control is so sacred and when we lose it even in an emergency situation like this people sit up and take notice,” said Nunn. 

Kemp’s decision has received nationwide criticism and backlash, as Georgia is ranked 45th in testing availability according to the Atlanta-Constitution Journal. Despite Georgia ramping up testing availability in recent weeks, the demand far outweighs the current supply and widespread testing is considered a necessity before reopening the economy by health experts across the world. 

“We are flying a plane in really foggy weather without radar,” Dr. Harry J. Heiman, a clinical associate professor at Georgia State University’s School of Public Health in an interview with the AJC. 

With local governments’ hands tied, officials like Joyce are hoping citizens and local businesses will take it upon themselves go above and beyond the Governor’s order. 

“I would urge our citizens to continue to use their best judgment in being vigilant despite this decision and to exercise as much social distancing as they possibly can despite what’s happening legally. I understand the difficulties for our businesses, our retailers, but I think the primary responsibility we have as a government is to protect the health and safety or our citizens and I don’t think the order from our governor is doing that.” 

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