Gov. Brian Kemp’s recent decision to allow restaurant dining rooms, movie theaters, hair and nail salons, tattoo parlors, bowling alleys, gyms and some other types of previously nonessential businesses to reopen drew widespread ridicule and anger, both in his hometown of Athens and across the country.
Even President Donald Trump—who propelled the underdog Kemp to the Republican nomination with a tweet in 2018—threw him under the bus. CNN reported that Trump’s coronavirus task force sent public health advisor Deborah Birx to convince the president not to support Kemp’s reopening plan. It worked. Trump said Kemp was acting “too soon,” because Georgia hasn’t met the administration’s standard of 14 straight days of declining COVID-19 deaths. Fox News host Sean Hannity called the plan “dumb.”
Athens’ ultra-conservative congressman, Jody Hice, apparently didn’t get the memo. He wrote an op-ed for Townhall accusing public health experts and government officials of shutting down the economy for nothing. In reality, social distancing has worked, so the death toll hasn’t been nearly as high as it could have been. Hice also voted against the most recent coronavirus relief bill, which includes an additional $310 billion for small businesses.
Nor did Watkinsville Mayor Bob Smith, who was roasted on Facebook after posting a letter comparing patronizing a business to the heroics of 9/11.
The situation left liberals in the odd position of agreeing with a president they loathe. “Without enough testing, without enough supplies for doctors and nurses, and without listening to medical professionals, the governor’s actions today will make this crisis even worse and put more Georgians at risk,” Democratic Party of Georgia chairperson Nikema Williams said after Kemp’s announcement Apr. 20.
Athens-Clarke County Mayor Kelly Girtz appeared on CNN urging residents to continue sheltering in place. “It’s like telling your quarterback, ‘We don’t have a helmet for you, we don’t have pads, but just get out on the field and try not to get sacked,’” he said.
Georgia hit the peak of COVID-19 deaths on Apr. 7, according to one widely cited metric from the University of Washington. That same projection, though, shows that Georgia should not start relaxing social distancing measures until June 15, when testing is projected to ramp up enough so that suspected COVID-19 victims’ contacts can also be traced, tested and quarantined. “We’re not yet seeing a decline in the number of cases in Georgia,” Emory University epidemiology professor Carlos del Rio told the AJC.
Athens small business owners seem to understand this. “It’s not safe for our employees or customers,” said Bain Mattox of Automatic Pizza, which will continue with carry-out and delivery. At least one local restaurant, Hi-Lo, has opted to shutter entirely as a result of Kemp’s order. “I’m afraid if we have the door open, people will come in and grab a seat and hang out,” co-owner Jon Andrews said. All four local movie theaters—Ciné, Beechwood Cinemas, AMC and University Cinemas—remained closed at press time. So is Showtime Bowl, as well as the YMCA, several other local fitness centers, Republic Salon and Washington Square Studio. Nail Daddy responded by posting a clip of Bishop Bullwinkle’s 2014 viral hit “Hell to the Naw Naw” to Instagram.
Some even expressed anger at even having to make a choice. “The fact that we are put in this position is unconscionable,” said massage therapist Amy Bramblett. [Blake Aued]
ACC Says Keep Sheltering in Place
Despite Kemp’s recent order allowing some “non-essential” businesses to re-open, the ACC Commission voted Apr. 21 to extend the local emergency declaration here in Athens.
This extension allows ACC Manager Blaine Williams to keep some emergency powers until June 2, but it cannot contradict the statewide order. Even so, the commission is still requesting that all non-essential businesses remain closed and Athenians continue to shelter in place for the time being, citing the advice of medical experts.
“We can’t preempt the governor, unfortunately, at this time,” said Commissioner Russell Edwards. “This is simply a recommended action for our citizens.”
The commission continues to press forward with coronavirus relief efforts. At this meeting, they voted to start a local authority tasked with distributing small loans to affected businesses, but commissioners lamented that they couldn’t do more. “I would have liked to see this as a grant program rather than a loan program,” Commissioner Ovita Thornton said. A grant program would be forbidden by the state constitution’s gratuities clause—a familiar bugbear for this commission—which prevents local governments from giving away taxpayer money directly to individuals or businesses.
However, there are other options for providing relief. The commission is considering a $15,000 fund administered through the Athens Cultural Affairs Commission to finance local art projects. The fund currently has enough money to provide 20 artists with $750 awards, and this funding might be increased by the time the mayor and commission vote to approve the plan on May 5. The Athens Cultural Affairs Commission will come up with a plan to distribute the money over the next week to support local artists during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The last coronavirus-related item considered by the commission at this meeting was an amendment to the ACC charter relating to the local government’s emergency powers. These expanded powers would include the ability to make contributions to charitable organizations and to provide relief to the indigent or impoverished as a way of promoting public safety and well-being. According to Girtz, this will be done to provide further legal support to actions the local government is already taking, and to speed up responses to future emergencies. The measure is scheduled for a June 2 vote.
One non-coronavirus item worth mentioning is that Verizon Wireless has threatened to sue ACC if the commission does not approve the construction of a cell tower on Nowhere Road. A permit for this tower was rejected when nearby residents came out in force to speak out against it at a December commission meeting. They submitted a number of new comments for this meeting, which were read into the record by Commissioner Tim Denson.
In addition, Thornton, who also has constituents in the proposed area, took a firm stand in opposition to the tower despite the pending lawsuit. “Anybody and everybody will trample over District 9,” she said. “This is a David and Goliath moment.”
The decision on the Verizon tower was pushed back to May 19.
This article originally appeared at athenspoliticsnerd.com. [Chris Dowd]
Mayor Hosts COVID-19 Virtual Town Halls
With Kemp’s announcement that he is starting to reopen the state came many questions—about unemployment, ACC’s plans and more. Girtz and Manager Blaine Williams tried to answer those at the first of what is slated to become a weekly virtual town hall meeting at 6 p.m. Wednesdays, streamed on at YouTube.com/ACCgov.
How long will this pandemic last? Williams said he is looking three, four, even six months ahead. “I am personally someone who’s looking closely at a risk of resurgence later this year, and we’ll be planning accordingly.”
In the meantime, ACC employees continue to work from home, or in the case of folks like sanitation workers, report in teams or shifts so the county can continue to provide essential services. “We can’t afford for your water not to come on—not in this public health emergency,” Williams said. Some construction is ongoing, although permits are down 40%. Road work is continuing, with plans to build new sidewalks and repave the city’s 100 worst streets this summer.
“This crisis has struck on one of the most beautiful springs I can remember, and the nature of it is everybody wants to get outside,” Girtz said. But although trails are open, park amenities like playgrounds and basketball courts encourage people to gather, so they remain closed. Leisure Services summer camps have been canceled for June.
If and when students return this fall, will they bring a surge of infections with them? Life will still not be the same as it was. “High-contact” activities and large gatherings are the least likely to be allowed at that point, Girtz said. “I want nothing more than to walk on the sticky floor of the 40 Watt Club and be with 500 people listening to some live music,” he said, “but I know that can’t happen yet.”
Can employees of businesses that reopen stay on unemployment? People who are over 60, are quarantined on the advice of a medical professional, have a condition that makes them susceptible to COVID-19, are a caregiver of such a person or are a parent that can’t find childcare are exempt from returning to work, according to Williams. Employees who don’t think their employer is following proper safety protocols can also document those. “If you make the decision it’s just not safe for you, and you do decide to separate, you have the ability to file a claim,” Williams said. Those who return to work part-time can earn up to $300 a week and retain their unemployment benefits, he added.
What about a property tax break for struggling residents? ACC has already asked the state legislature to raise the homestead exemption for low-income homeowners. But the county budget is likely to be strapped for the coming fiscal year, depending on federal aid and when UGA reopens. “While some prospect of a reduction exists, we have some limiting factors there in terms of basic operating needs,” he said. [BA]
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