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Kemp orders Georgians to shelter in place, closes K-12 public schools for the school year
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A small group of pedestrians walk along the square Tuesday, March 31, 2020, in downtown Gainesville. - photo by Scott Rogers
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Gov. Brian Kemp will sign an executive order Wednesday, April 1, closing K-12 public schools for the remainder of the school year and also sign an order for a statewide shelter-in-place to run from Friday, April 3, through April 13.

“This date is in line with our public health emergency order. (Georgia Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Kathleen) Toomey and I will continue to work day and night to finalize the order to make sure it keeps our citizens healthy and protected in every ZIP code across our state. We’re taking action to protect our hospitals, to help our medical providers and prepare for the patient surge that we know is coming,” Kemp said.

State law enforcement will likely be used to enforce the shelter-in-place order, though the details were still in the works. 

When asked about exemptions, Kemp said, “People have to eat. We have to continue to process our food supply. We have to have pharmacies open. We have to have Georgia-based companies that are making (personal protective equipment) medical supplies.”

Kemp said online learning will continue.

As of Wednesday morning, there were 3,520 medical surgical beds, 450 beds and 1,006 ventilators at hospitals across the state. Georgia is expected to reach its peak hospital capacity on April 23.

“This model assumes that Georgians continue to abide by the state’s orders and use social distancing methods through the end of May,” Kemp said.

Kemp temporarily suspended certificate-of-need laws to expand hospital capacities. Northeast Georgia Health System officials did not immediately comment when reached by The Times.

“As many as one in four people with coronavirus don’t realize they have infection because they have no symptoms whatsoever. Even if symptoms begin, you can transmit it earlier than expected, so we felt that the time was now to take some more aggressive measures,” Toomey said.

Earlier Wednesday, Gainesville and Hall County approved resolutions similar to what was proposed by Kemp.

Starting April 2, Gainesville and Hall County residents are required to stay at home unless they are leaving for an essential activity.

Toomey said outbreaks have been reported potentially related to prisons, jails, church gatherings and funerals.

The Georgia National Guard deployed 13 medical support teams to regional coordinating hospitals across the state and are working on infection control teams to be deployed at long-term care facilities, assisted living centers and nursing homes

“If we can flatten the curve now, we make that bull’s-eye smaller, which is less people that we’ve got to run through the hospital system,” Kemp said.

In Gainesville and Hall, essential activities include getting medicine or health care services, buying groceries or pet supplies, or going to work at an essential business.

People are allowed to do outdoor activities like walking, hiking, running or cycling. Another exemption is “essential infrastructure” work such as garbage pickup, public works construction and the providing of internet services. 

The resolutions passed Wednesday also require non-essential businesses to close, although they can continue operating with employees working from home. 

Essential businesses allowed to stay open include grocery stores, health care providers, pharmacies, gas stations, banks, laundromats and dry cleaners, news media, plumbers, electricians, exterminators and establishments that help those in need like shelters.

Hair and nail salons will be required to close.

Essential travel will be allowed. That includes traveling to take care of the elderly, minors, dependents and people with disabilities. People who live in Gainesville or Hall but have been out of the area are allowed to travel home, and people who have been in the city or county but live somewhere else can travel out. 

The city had previously closed restaurants’ dining rooms and fitness centers, and those rules remain in place. The county also closed restaurants’ dining rooms, and that remains in effect. Takeout, drive-thru and delivery service are still allowed. 

Gainesville City Manager Bryan Lackey said officials have been monitoring the spread of the virus and have seen recent increases of cases in Hall County. The city passed a joint resolution with Hall County and the Northeast Georgia Health System on Friday, March 27, asking people to stay home as much as possible. Lackey said conversations about how to address the virus continued over the weekend and into the next week, with the Council issuing a shelter-in-place order Wednesday. 

The city’s order is effective until the Council votes to withdraw it. The county’s lasts 72 hours, although the chairman of the board can extend it. 

The Gainesville Police Department will be enforcing the rules in the city, and anyone with a concern about noncompliance can call the non-emergency dispatch number at 770-534-5251. Lackey said the city does not have plans for checkpoints to stop people on the road and ask about their travel.

The Hall County Sheriff’s Office will be enforcing the resolution in the county, and Sheriff Gerald Couch said that while the Sheriff's Office will have the authority to issue citations, the county will emphasize educating the public about the rules. The non-emergency dispatch number is 770-536-8812. 

The city or county could issue a fine of up to $1,000 if an individual or business refuses to comply. Officials will be working with businesses and the public to educate them about the change.

Any person showing COVID-19 symptoms recognized by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention should not enter public buildings, restaurants, shops and other areas where the public is located. Symptoms include fever, cough and shortness of breath. 

Douglas Young, professor of political science at the University of North Georgia, said restrictions like those that governments have been passing during the pandemic have some precedents in wartime.

“Though we are not in a shooting war, the government claims fighting the coronavirus is the equivalent of war,” Young said in an email. “Especially if the bipartisan support for quarantining and social distancing continues, I suspect the courts will again defer to government officials and support the emergency violations of our First and Fourth Amendment rights.”

For example, Young said during World War II, cities had mandatory blackouts at night and there was more government censorship of the press. World War I is another example.

“President Woodrow Wilson signed the 1917 Espionage Act and the 1918 Sedition Act passed by Congress, which basically suspended the First Amendment by making it a crime to criticize the federal government's prosecution of the war,” Young said. “Many thousands of Americans were imprisoned for merely opposing the war, and the High Court upheld the government.”