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A new community initiative including local governments, businesses and nonprofits asks Hall residents and businesses to pledge to take precautions against COVID-19, a move initiative partners say is less divisive than a mask mandate.
The “hAll in” initiative is a partnership between the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce, the Northeast Georgia Health System and the governments of Braselton, Buford, Clermont, Gainesville, Hall County, Gillsville, Lula and Oakwood.
The initiative’s website, wearehallin.com, includes a pledge people can sign promising to practice social distancing, wash their hands, wear a mask when appropriate and disinfect high-touch surfaces.
Businesses, nonprofits, churches and other organizations, as well as individuals, can sign on to be added to the list of pledges on the initiative’s website.
Local organizations that have already signed on include the Northeast Georgia Latino Chamber of Commerce, Avita Community Partners, Brenau University, the University of North Georgia, Hall County Schools, Gainesville City Schools, Syfan Logistics and Fieldale Farms.
“It is really geared toward reaching out to the community and inviting them to participate in the solution to this problem,” Hall County Administrator Jock Connell said Friday, Oct. 2, on a call with the chamber. “It’s not forcing it on them. It helps them to join hands with us, lock arms with us and be part of attacking this COVID-19 pandemic that we’re all going through right now.”
A coalition of community leaders began meeting in early September to discuss how to address COVID-19, Connell said. Soon, local law enforcement and other community groups got involved, he said.
The group considered how to encourage people to follow public health guidance and ultimately decided against enforcing a mask mandate, Connell said.
“Masks are a highly political thing in this world today, and we talked about the possibility of mask mandates,” Connell said. “But the more we talked about that, the more we drifted further and further away from that idea, and predominantly because of practical issues, logistical issues, enforcement issues and were some people really going to feel good about something being forced on them?”
Katie Crumley, public information officer for Hall County government, said the program as designed to “set the standard of behavior” for the community.
“When you walk into a business and everybody in that business is wearing a mask or you walk into a church service and everyone there is wearing a mask, you are encouraged to do the same,” Crumley said.
Rob Fowler, leader of the coalition and CEO of Turner Wood & Smith, said the group saw a COVID-19 unit at Northeast Georgia Medical Center to see the effects of the virus firsthand. He said the goals of the initiative are to help the area’s economy, protect the community’s physical and mental health, and get case positivity rates for COVID-19 at or below 5%, the recommended level the World Health Organization says should be reached before a community reopens.
“Hall County has an amazing and unique community that prides itself on always striving to be exceptional, so we should never allow ourselves to settle for being average or below average,” Fowler said in a statement. “That’s especially true when it comes to something as important to the physical, mental and financial health of our community as our response to the current pandemic. The coalition members believe the only way we’ll make progress in stopping the spread of this virus is by working together as one.”
hAll in is modeled after Savannah Safe, a similar pledge program in the Savannah area.
On Friday, the Northeast Georgia Health System was treating 72 patients at its facilities. Two weeks before, on Sept. 18, the system was treating 76 patients. Systemwide, NGHS had 645 beds in use and 52 available Friday, according to data on its website.
As of Friday, the two-week case positivity rate for tests done at NGHS and the Longstreet Clinic was 11.38%, above the state number of 7.2% and the World Health Organization goal of 5%.
Hall County had 428 new COVID-19 cases between Sept. 19 and 25 and had seen 9,194 cases since the beginning of the pandemic, according to the Georgia Department of Public Health.
Though the health system’s patient numbers remained relatively low on Friday, compared to previous months, Dr. John Delzell, NGHS’ vice president for graduate medical education and a COVID-19 incident commander, said it will be important “not to really let up on the gas on this,” referring to prevention efforts.
“If we start to decide that this is all over and people start to have big gatherings and stop following their social distancing, we’ll see those numbers start to spike back up,” he said.
Carol Burrell, CEO of NGHS, echoed Delzell, encouraging the public to stay vigilant.
“It’s still out there, so we feel a real imperative to continue to stay focused on keeping our businesses open, keeping our schools open, and how we exist in this new world order,” Burrell said.