By Tia Lynn Ivey
Georgia Governor Brian Kemp embarked on a statewide tour last week to urge all Georgians to voluntarily wear masks and social distance while in public due to spiking coronavirus cases confirmed across the state as more businesses and public spaces reopen. Kemp said mask wearing and social distancing is the closest thing the country has to a vaccine against COVID-19, a highly contagious and potentially lethal upper-respiratory disease.
However, Kemp’s recommendations are just that, leaving plenty of wiggle room for how public spaces implement coronavirus precautions. As each local government in Morgan County resumes in-person public meetings, the precautions being taken vary tremendously.
The two largest local governments, Morgan County and the City of Madison, will not operate under the same standards in the age of the coronavirus.
The Morgan County Board of Commissioners (BOC) reopened public meetings the earliest out of all five local governments on May 5, with county offices reopening May 18. County employees, however, have received N-95 masks to wear at their discretion, hand sanitizer stations, and partitions to help socially distance from the public. County offices also feature signs educating the public on the coronavirus and how best to prevents its spread. However, BOC public meetings have been more lax on precautions, with none of the commissioners or county staff opting to wear masks during meetings open to the public. The county also does not provide masks for the public attending or to enforce strict social distancing guidelines. Tuesday’s BOC regular meeting included 17 people in the smaller conference room with no seating arrangement set up for people to social distance, although most people chose to sit at least one seat apart.
The City of Madison is set to have it’s first in-person public meeting this Monday, July 13, but will have strict protocols in place, such as limited seating between 25-30 people in order to space seats at least six-feet apart. The council members have regularly donned masks during livestreamed meetings amongst themselves. Masks will be available to citizens attending Monday’s meeting, and though masks are not required, they are “strongly encouraged.”
The stark contrast between the city and county’s methods comes down to a difference in overall philosophy.
According to Commissioner Chairman Philip von Hanstein, county commissioners lean more on the side of freedom and individual choice when it comes to wearing masks and social distancing.
“It is a personal choice,” said von Hanstein. “I choose not wear a mask because it is hard enough for me to communicate as it is,” joked von Hanstein about his German accent. “But some of us are not just comfortable wearing them and since there have not been any confirmed cases among county staff, we feel we are still doing a good job.”
City of Madison leaders tend to lean more toward collective actions and individual sacrifices to protect the community as a whole.
“Wearing a mask is not about you catching the virus, it’s about you not giving the virus to someone else,” said City Manager David Nunn. “That’s how we need to think about it. We are telling people that if you are going anywhere that you cannot control who you are around, you need to wear a mask. We want our citizens to stay safe, stay calm, and to take care of each other.”
Madison Mayor Fred Perriman aims to lead by example, along with other city council members who regularly wear masks during meetings.
“We are strongly encouraging all our citizens to wear masks at the meetings and any time they go into public,” said Perriman.
However, county leaders point to the low rate of infection in Morgan County. According to County Manager Adam Mestres, out of the 200-plus county employees, there have been zero confirmed coronavirus cases and only one suspected case. Mestres also noted that local government are considered “critical infrastructure” and are exempt from strict social distancing guideline unless a gathering exceeds 50 or more. Mestres noted that how the county conducts public meetings could change if the pandemic worsens or the Governor makes masks and other precautions mandatory.
“We are trying to do everything we can, but we still want to conduct the businesses of the county,’ said Mestres. “We are cognizant of the numbers, we are watching them closely, and we continue to encourage the workforce to me mindful when dealing with the public. And we have had no complaints in our offices that people felt unsafe conducting business at our offices.”
County Commissioner Donald Harris believes the county is doing well holding public meetings but is open to change.
“I am open to wearing a mask,” said Harris. “We just need to discuss it further as a board. We want to make sure we are setting a good example for the people in the community.
I am willing to do what is best for the people.”
Commissioner Ben Riden said he would wear a mask during public meetings if it were mandatory, but not do it voluntarily.
“I am not necessarily a big fan of wearing a mask,” said Riden. “I think it’s each individual’s personal decision unless it’s mandatory. I believe you should keep the social distancing aspect and be respectful of people’s space. I think people take it the extreme with this and I’m not an extremist, but I always want to be respectful of people’s personal space.”
Riden said wearing a mask makes it difficult to talk in meetings and hard to breathe.
“We have got to move to get things back to normal at some point,” said Riden. “I know this stuff is contagious, but we need a sense of normalcy sooner rather than later. I’ll be reasonable, but we can’t go bonkers with this stuff.”
Chairman von Hanstein pledged to continue working on behalf of the citizens.
“We are going to do the county’s business and do the best we can and that’s all we can do,” said von Hanstein.
Bostwick, Rutledge and the Town of Buckhead all held their first public meetings within the last few weeks, but officials from each municipality noted there was no public turnout.
According to Rutledge Mayor Bruce Altznauer the last city council meeting featured spaced out seatings for both council members and the public, though no members of the public showed up. But council members opted not to wear masks.
“We are listening to Governor Kemp and Georgia public health officials have to say this week before we decide to do anything different,” said Altznauer. “The City of Rutledge is committed to keeping everyone safe during the coronavirus pandemic. I don’t anticipate making any changes from what we are doing right now, but I want to listen to what their recommendations. We will take them as guidelines and recommendations and now as law.”
Rutledge City Hall, which now resides in the old Bank of Madison building, is still closed to public, but city staff offers services through the old teller window.
“Our citizens have really seemed to like this set up,” said Polly Huff, assistant clerk for the City of Rutledge.
According to Damon Malcom, city councilman for Bostwick, the July 5 regular meeting only featured the six mayor and council members.
“We didn’t wear masks, but we were in a room large enough to socially distance,” said Malcom.
According to Ricky Walker, mayor of the Town of Buckhead, said the first meeting of Buckhead’s city council was held two weeks but no one from the public showed up. Walker is open to wearing masks and taking other recommended precautions.
“We will do whatever we are recommended to do,” said Walker. “Most everybody coming around is wearing masks. We have bottles of sanitizers in the firehouse. If we get to a point where we have too many people in the conference room, we will move everybody out to the fire truck base with there is more room to space out.”
Meanwhile, Governor Kemp is asking all Georgia to voluntarily wear masks in all public setting and adhere to social distancing.
“All Georgia residents and visitors are strongly encouraged to wear face coverings as practicable while outside their home or place of residents, except when eating, drinking, or exercising outdoors,” said Kemp. “When you leave your home, wear cloth face coverings wherever and whenever practicable. Covering your nose and mouth greatly reduces your chances of spreading the virus and provides some protection for the wearer. Use face coverings if you’ll be indoors or around other people where social distancing measures are difficult to maintain.”
Kemp also said that social distancing guidelines are for all people, even presumed healthy people.
“The state is asking every Georgian to limit person-to-person contact until the pandemic is over. Social distancing is not about us as individuals; it’s about all Georgians working in unison to slow the spread of the virus so our hospitals aren’t overwhelmed by a surge of critically ill patients,” said Kemp.