CORONAVIRUS—Governor's order creates confusion for City and County

  • The Dahlonega City Council met via Zoom teleconference last Monday with many members of the public listening in.
    The Dahlonega City Council met via Zoom teleconference last Monday with many members of the public listening in.
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While the Dahlonega City Council was passing a wide-reaching stay-at-home order in hopes of curbing the spread of COVID-19, Governor Brian Kemp was in the process of implementing his own executive order for residents of Georgia to stay at home. That order, which was signed by Kemp on Thursday, April 2, essentially made the stricter ordinance unanimously passed by Dahlonega’s city council null and void, according to local officials.
“The governor’s action preempted our action and all other local more restrictive and less restrictive actions,” said Dahlonega Mayor Sam Norton. “So, we’re just going to set ours [ordinance] aside for now.”
It’s a move that frustrated city officials.
“I just hate that the state is actually proposing looser restrictions than the local jurisdictions and prohibiting us from taking the stance that our citizens want,” Norton said.

Kemp’s executive order, instructing Georgia’s 10.6 million residents to stay at home until April 13, stated that Georgia residents are instructed to isolate themselves except for “essential services,” such as buying groceries and medicines, seeking medical care or traveling to jobs required for “minimum basic operations” and “critical infrastructure.”
However, whereas the city council had defined those “essential services” in its ordinance, Kemp’s order did not define the jobs matching that description. Kemp’s executive order also failed to define the difference between “essential” and “non-essential” businesses.
Instead, Kemp’s order directs that for businesses to remain open, they must screen workers for a fever of 100.4 degrees, cough or shortness of breath, must provide their employees with protective gear and must adhere to social distancing guidelines laid out in the executive order; among others.

Kemp’s order also mandated the closing down of gyms, fitness centers, bowling alleys, theaters, live performance venues, operators of amusement rides, body art studios, estheticians, hair designers and massage therapy businesses.
The executive order does allow for restaurants to continue offering carry-out and delivery service.
The order, however, does not address church services nor funerals, as the city council’s ordinance had.
The executive order voided several of the provisions put into place by the city council on Wednesday, including the two-week shutdown of day cares, the golf course at Achasta, and other restrictions which were outlined in in the city ordinance.
The closure of the Achasta golf course was debated during the city’s meeting as council members Ron Larson and Helen Hardman pushed for golf to be listed as an essential business open to Lumpkin County residents only.
The idea was rebuffed by fellow council members as well as attendees of the Zoom-based teleconference meeting.
“We all have to make sacrifices,” said councilman Mitch Ridley. “With us passing a stay-at-home order, it doesn’t look good from the road to see people in Achasta playing golf.”
Later Norton said he didn’t agree with Kemp’s attempt to overrule the decision.
“We feel we know better what to do for our community because we were elected and hear from our constituents, but home rule can be preempted by a higher power like the governor in this case,” Norton said. “I question the wisdom, but day cares and golf courses are allowed to be open per the governor. They can legally do these things, but there are a lot of things people can do legally that can be reckless.”

Kemp’s order appeared to override the patchwork of restrictions Dahlonega and Lumpkin County have adopted over the course of the past few weeks with a clause that stated powers of the county and the city governmental bodies were, “hereby suspended to the extent of suspending enforcement of any local ordinance or order adopted or issued since March 1, 2020, with the stated purpose or effect of responding to a public health state of emergency,” according to Kemp’s executive order.
Enforcement of all such ordinances and orders were suspended by Kemp while his order is in effect, except for ordinances and orders that are designed to enforce compliance with his executive order.
As a result the Lumpkin County Board of Commissioners held an emergency special called meeting Saturday, April 4 at 3 p.m. to discuss the order. (See accompanying story on front page)

As of presstime, Lumpkin County had nine reported confirmed cases.
However, it is significant to consider that the data released by the DPH has been subject to a lag in reporting due to the varying time in which tests can be processed and that the numbers released by the DPH counts 309 confirmed cases as being from unknown counties.
“The Department of Public Health has said that it takes up to 10 days to get results, so that’s our lag time right there,” Norton said. “We don’t know the true numbers. We’re 10 days out from testing someone to getting results, and how many people could they touch in 10 days.”
Norton was further disturbed by the fact that Kemp admitted during his news conference that he was unaware that asymptomatic people could spread the virus.
“For the governor not to know that before is absolutely mind boggling to me,” Norton said.

COUNTY GOVERNMENT REACTS

The county and city governments “have been waiting for the governor [Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp] to  give us some guidance” on how to respond to the coronavirus, said Lumpkin County Manager Stan Kelley in a phone interview last Friday. Once the order arrived, more guidance was needed. And it resulted in an emergency meeting by the county.
“We’ve spent all morning trying to dissect this thing,” said Kelley. “It’s a fluid situation. This morning it was even up in the air whether the sheriff could enforce the order or not.”
The Georgia Sheriffs Association got the question answered in the affirmative. But that was hardly the only question.
On Friday, Kelley, staff, legal counsel, ACCG (Association of County Commissioners), GMA (Georgia Municipal Association) and others were all scrambling to find out who is considered an essential business and who is not; whether city and county facilities such as parks and beaches had to be open to the public; if the order preempted local declarations that were more strict; among others.
In a called ZOOM work session held Saturday, county attorney Joy Edleberg  was able to answer some of those questions. The most pressing, perhaps, concerned whether the county has the authority to close Yahoola Creek Park.

The governor’s declaration does preempt local restrictions “as long as it is in effect,”Edelberg told the board. “However, in my opinion, the county can control county-owned property and access to it.”
Kelley said ACCG agrees.
Currently, the park and trail at the reservoir are closed. The BOC held another work session Tuesday, after press-time, to discuss its future.
Edelberg also said that while the county can control its own property, it cannot mandate closure to privately owned parks.

On March 31 the BOC directed all county employees to return to work Monday, April 6.
Those who wish to remain at home must use accrued comp time and vacation time before tapping into their sick time.
“Any employee that does not have adequate leave to cover their absence may personally contact the Georgia Department of Labor to file a partial unemployment claim,” a letter from Kelley to employees states.
Edelberg said there is nothing in the governor’s declaration to preclude the action. The county is considered “critical infrastructure, and employees can be asked to report to work ,” she said. “But they must comply with the 16 points in the governor’s declaration.”
Those points include screening all employees, social distancing and frequent hand washing/sanitization.
Kelley said he checked out all the offices and there should be no problem with social distancing.
“We can get people back to work and still keep our employees safe, using social distancing and being closed to the public. It’s time to get back to work, or else we’re going to get further and further behind. We have to work on the digest, we have parks to maintain. The job of government doesn’t just stop,” Kelley said.