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As COVID cases surge, lawmakers encourage precautions but stop short of mandates
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Visitors to downtown Gainesville enjoy the mild weather Friday, Dec. 11, 2020, while shopping and dining on the sidewalk. Businesses have adapted to changes forced by the coronavirus pandemic, and as numbers surged to new records locally, shutdowns seemed unlikely, according to several elected officials. - photo by Scott Rogers

As the Northeast Georgia Health System on Friday treated its highest number of COVID-19 patients since the pandemic began, local and state government officials encouraged precautions, especially during the holiday season as more people gather.

But governments have stopped short of mandating shutdowns or other such measures as, according to the Association County Commissioners of Georgia, local governments cannot enact a local shutdown. 

A spokesman for the Governor’s Office also said Friday, Dec. 11, that “local governments are not able to issue any restrictions that are more or less restrictive than the order in place.” 

Gov. Brian Kemp issued an executive order near the start of the pandemic declaring a state of emergency in Georgia and has been renewing that order monthly since March. Another order, also renewed several times throughout the pandemic, requires sheltering in place for higher-risk people, such as those in long-term care facilities or those with chronic lung disease. Other requirements include employee health screenings and increased sanitation at several types of businesses.

Local governments are allowed to mandate masks on their own properties, except in the case of polling locations, the order says. No one can be denied access to a polling place because they are not wearing a mask, the document says.

NGHS was treating 261 COVID-19 patients at its facilities Friday, Dec. 11, a new peak for the system.

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Richard Higgins, chairman of the Hall County Board of Commissioners, said county officials get regular updates from health care providers about the pandemic. Until a vaccine is widely available, he said, the best way to stop the spread of the virus will be following public health guidelines that have been urged throughout the pandemic.

“We’ve been doing this for a number of months now, and it’s easy for people to get complacent about wearing a mask or social distancing,” Higgins said. 

Local officials consulted with law enforcement and realized they could not enforce a mask mandate on private property and their options were limited, Higgins said. 

Several local governments, along with the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce and NGHS, have formed the “hAll in” program, which encourages individuals, organizations and businesses to take a pledge and advertise their commitments to taking precautions.

The city of Gainesville is one of many entities that has signed on to the pledge.

“The city is obviously concerned about the recent COVID-19 numbers for both our state and community, and the census numbers at the hospital. Because of that, we continue to stress our community’s hALL IN Initiative,” Gainesville City Manager Bryan Lackey said in an email. “As for any other actions, we do not want to get ahead of the governor and any current or future steps he may take statewide.”

Gainesville Mayor Danny Dunagan said a mask mandate did not seem enforceable.

“The last thing I want to do is start fighting our citizens on not wearing a mask if they’re just not going to wear one, period,” he said. “I wish everyone, all the businesses, would join the hAll in initiative. … If everybody would do that, I think we would be just fine.”

Dunagan said the city is not currently looking at changing the hours of its offices but could reconsider if the city sees a spike in COVID-19 cases.

Hall County spokeswoman Katie Crumley said the county was monitoring data from health officials and would make decisions about facility closures based on that data or direction from the state.

State Sen. Butch Miller, R-Gainesville, also encouraged people to take precautions such as wearing a mask, distancing and practicing hygiene.

“To my knowledge at this point, there is no discussion of a shutdown of any sort. The governor’s executive order speaks for itself,” Miller said.

He said individuals and businesses are encouraged “to use good judgment and to exercise social and community responsibility” in preventing the spread of the virus.

Other state legislators who represent Hall encouraged the same precautions.

“We’re not even through with the Thanksgiving surge, and then we’re going to have Christmas on top of that,” said State Rep. Lee Hawkins, R-Gainesville.

Hawkins said he would prefer to see people take precautions rather than shut down businesses.

“We’ve let our guard down. I see more people not wearing masks in the large stores than I would say three weeks ago,” Hawkins said. “I think we need to go back and do the things that were working and that is wear your mask, wash your hands, stay separated from other people. Do not have large group gatherings. All the things that really got us out of it, go back to that. We’ve just gotten lax on that.”

State Rep. Matt Dubnik, R-Gainesville, said Hall’s delegation had been briefed by NGHS on the situation on Thursday. He said local hospitals have seen higher surges and more capacity issues than other hospitals in the state. A decision about another shutdown would come from Kemp, not state legislators, Dubnik said.

State Rep. Timothy Barr, R-Lawrenceville, also said it would be the governor’s decision.

“I hope that he errs on the side of freedom and safety,” Barr said.

And State Rep. Emory Dunahoo, R-Gillsville, said he hopes the federal government does not require Georgia to go by its mandates, but people still need to think about others.

“Government, they need to govern, but they need to back off and also help with common sense,” Dunahoo said. “And sometimes, our government does not have common sense.”

The shutdown at the start of the pandemic negatively affected many people’s livelihoods, Dunahoo said.

Times reporter Jeff Gill contributed to this report.

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Visitors to downtown Gainesville enjoy the mild weather Friday, Dec. 11, 2020, for dining on the sidewalk. - photo by Scott Rogers
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Visitors to downtown Gainesville enjoy the mild weather Friday, Dec. 11, 2020, shopping and dining on the sidewalk. - photo by Scott Rogers
12122020 SHUTDOWN 1.jpg
Visitors to downtown Gainesville enjoy the mild weather Friday, Dec. 11, 2020, shopping and dining on the sidewalk. - photo by Scott Rogers
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Visitors to downtown Gainesville enjoy the mild weather Friday, Dec. 11, 2020, shopping and dining on the sidewalk. - photo by Scott Rogers