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Commission Restricts Public Gatherings, Calls for People to Stay at Home

Mayor Kelly Girtz. Photo credit: Chris Scredon

In an effort to slow the spread of coronavirus, the Athens-Clarke County Commission approved an emergency ban on assemblies larger than 10 people in many local gathering places at a called meeting Monday night.

But the commission opted against a proposed curfew, instead passing a “voluntary sheltering in place” policy asking residents to stay in their homes as much as possible.

The ban on gatherings of more than 10 people—based on a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendation issued today—applies to bars, restaurants, entertainment venues like movie theaters and bowling alleys, ACC-owned facilities and public property. Employees are exempted from the limit. It does not apply to retailers, such as grocery stores or pharmacies. Restaurants will still be allowed to serve food for take-out and delivery.

The vote came after three hours of debate. At one point, some commissioners wanted to put off a decision so county Attorney Judd Drake could do more legal research. But with St. Patrick’s Day looming on Tuesday and college students still packing local bars in spite of official advice to stay at least six feet away from other people, most commissioners wanted to act quickly to limit public gatherings. Researchers believe the virus is spread primarily through close proximity in crowds.

“We have 40 ICU beds,” Commissioner Russell Edwards said. “If we don’t decisively halt the spread of this virus, our hospitals will be overwhelmed, and doctors will have to decide who gets a ventilator and who doesn’t.†He pointed to the rapidly deteriorating situation in Italy, where people are quarantined in their homes and health care is being rationed.

So far, there have only been three cases of coronavirus reported in Athens, but that number is expected to increase exponentially as testing becomes more widely available. The CDC estimates that about half of Americans will contract coronavirus. If that holds true in Athens, COVID-19 will kill hundreds of people locally, and thousands of local residents could be hospitalized, even if the mortality rate is only 1%. The goal is to slow the rate of infections to a rate the health care system can handle.

Two commissioners—Patrick Davenport and Ovita Thornton—voted against the gathering limit. They said they’re worried about its impact on the poor. “We always put the most vulnerable at the back end,” Thornton said. Davenport called for a fund to assist service industry workers.

Others saw more urgency and wanted to pass something right away. “The longer we wait, the worse this is going to get,” Commissioner Andy Herod said.

The 10-or-more limit takes effect at 5 p.m. Tuesday and expires at 5 a.m. Apr. 7 unless the commission extends it.

Commissioners found themselves at an impasse on a proposed curfew. Some wanted 7 p.m., some wanted 9 p.m., some wondered how it would affect homeless people, and others didn’t see the point in having a curfew at all if large gatherings were prohibited.

In the end, all nine commissioners present—Allison Wright was not there, while Herod and Mariah Parker participated remotely—agreed on a “voluntary shelter-in-place” policy. Residents are asked to stay at home 24 hours a day unless they’re going to or from work, running an “emergency errand,” getting food, making deliveries or walking or running recreationally or for exercise.

The possibility remains that the commission could further restrict public activities at a future meeting.

The state continues to take stronger actions to fight the spread of the virus. The state legislature gave Gov. Brian Kemp emergency powers this morning. As the commission was meeting, Kemp announced that all public K-12 schools and colleges will be closed through the end of March.

UGA was already closed through Mar. 29, but the Clarke County School District had only closed for this week.