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Georgia lawmakers grant powers to governor to fight virus
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Brian Kemp. (Bob Andres/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)

ATLANTA (AP) — Georgia's lawmakers are granting Gov. Brian Kemp broad powers to combat the spread of the new coronavirus, as the governor called for restrictions on nursing homes and assisted living facilities and cases in the state continued to climb.

Members of the General Assembly convened a special session Monday, as required by Kemp's Saturday declaration of a public health emergency. Lawmakers wrangled for hours over whether they should have to vote again if Kemp wants to extend the powers past April 13 before compromising.

The Georgia Public Health Department reported 121 cases at noon Monday, up from 99 on Sunday. Most remain in metro Atlanta and north Georgia, although the Albany area in southwest Georgia reported eight cases across two counties.

Kemp issued a statement Monday calling for assisted living communities and nursing homes to restrict all visitors and avoid holding group activities including communal dining, due to the "high mortality rate among the elderly and chronically ill." Exceptions can be made in certain circumstances such as when people are dying.

The legislative debate came as one state House member self-quarantined and did not attend after being exposed to someone with the virus. Kaleb McMichen, a spokesman for House Speaker David Ralston, did not identify the member. Some lawmakers were checked for fever by a nurse before the session started.

Also Monday, state Superintendent Richard Woods suspended standardized testing for Georgia's public school students and penalties for schools that miss days.

Kemp has already used the authority he signed Saturday to call as many as 2,000 members of the Georgia National Guard to active service. He also said he will suspend rules to allow health care workers to quickly gain licenses in Georgia. 

The strong emergency powers given Kemp under the law including the ability to suspend laws and regulations, commandeer private property, take over hospitals, offer temporary housing and welfare payments, and take money directly from the state treasury without legislative authorization.

"Ladies and gentlemen of this house. We are in uncertain times," said Rep. Calvin Smyre, a Columbus Democrat and the longest-serving House member. "For this is a time for us to speak with one voice."

Senate members proposed allowing Kemp to renew the state of emergency by himself, while House members argued that lawmakers are required to vote again. After an hourslong standoff, members of the House and Senate agreed to strike any reference to an expiration date. But they agreed to file papers with the signatures of required two-thirds of each chamber calling for an April special session, which would give lawmakers a chance to revoke Kemp's powers.

"If for some unforeseen reason the House is unable to return, the governor will have the ability to keep in place the state of emergency," said House Majority Leader Jon Burns, a Newington Republican.

For most people, the virus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. The vast majority of people recover.

Almost 1.6 million of Georgia's 1.8 million public school students are out of school statewide, according to the Georgia Department of Education. Most schools say they hope to continue delivering lessons online. 

The suspension of standardized testing means that the tests won't count for 20% of grades for high school students who take end-of-course exams. It also means the state won't be able to issue grades for schools and school districts. Woods said he would ask the state Board of Education to ratify his actions at its next meeting. He said he would seek maximum flexibility from the U.S. Department of Education.

The University System of Georgia announced late Thursday that its 26 public colleges and universities would close for two weeks beginning Monday. Some private universities have announced plans to move instruction online for the remainder of the semester.

Business also moved to limit operations, with Atlanta-based Chick-fil-A saying it would close its dining rooms while keeping drive-thru windows open.

As Georgia's oldest city prepared to go without its hugely popular St. Patrick's Day parade for the first time in 99 years, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Savannah announced Monday that it had canceled its annual St. Patrick's Mass at the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist.

Both the Mass and parade had been scheduled Tuesday before virus worries intensified. Savannah Mayor Van Johnson announced last week that the St. Patrick's Day parade had been scrapped.

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