No Georgia city has seen more devastation from COVID-19 than Albany, which has among the highest per-capita death rates from the virus in the United States.
Albany Mayor Bo Dorough joined several other Georgia mayors, mostly fellow Democrats, in criticizing Gov. Brian Kemp’s plan to let some businesses reopen starting later this week. The plan was announced Monday.
Dorough told CNN that he aims to ask Kemp, a Republican, to grant an exception to the city, the rest of Dougherty County and all of southwest Georgia, the region hardest hit by COVID-19.
“We’re simply not ready to reopen,’’ he told the network. “Our hospital is still at capacity, and we certainly don’t have the capacity to contact trace.’’
The hospital in Albany, Phoebe Putney Memorial, has reported that 72 of its patients have died from COVID-19.
Kemp said his plan for reopening of businesses will supersede any local ordinances on coronavirus prevention. That means local governments cannot force businesses to stay shut.
Dorough told CNN on Tuesday that “as an elected official, I’m very concerned that the governor has prohibited us from implementing measures which might be appropriate to our locale.’’
“If you look at a map, you will see that the density of infection is highly localized in the state,’’ Dorough said. “And as it was mentioned earlier, here in Albany, we were already consumed by the virus when we realized what the problem was,’’ he said. “So we understand how bad this virus can be.’’
“Unfortunately, many areas of the state, which have only a handful of infections are, I believe, too anxious to return to normalcy, because they have not yet borne the brunt of this pandemic,’’ he added.
The Kemp plan would allow certain businesses to reopen Friday, including gyms, fitness centers, bowling alleys, body art studios, barbers, cosmetologists, hair designers, and nail care artists.
Restaurant dining rooms and movie theaters can open next Monday under the Kemp plan, but bars, nightclubs and entertainment operations will remain closed for the time being. Public schools will stay shut for the rest of the school year.
The Georgia order does not require any business to reopen, and federal guidelines cited by Kemp in his announcement say medically vulnerable people should continue to stay home.
Dorough said there can be no social distancing when a person gets a haircut in a barber shop.
Candice Broce, a spokeswoman for Kemp, told GHN on Tuesday that no request from the Albany mayor has been received. She declined to comment on Dorough’s statements.
The governor’s office contacted the Georgia Municipal Association and Association of County Commissioners before the Kemp announcement, Broce said.
The Municipal Association said Tuesday that it was made aware of portions of Gov. Kemp’s plan just 15 minutes before his announcement. “Unfortunately, this was not enough time to alert all of the elected officials and staff of Georgia’s 538 cities,” said a Municipal Association spokeswoman, Kelli Bennett.
In his announcement, Kemp said that he stays “in regular contact with local leaders across Georgia, especially those in Dougherty County, to ensure that we are providing adequate support. Right now, in Albany and Dougherty County, we are starting to see improvements. I talk to Commission Chairman Chris Cohilas on a regular basis to see if further action is warranted. Rest assured, if any community needs the state to intervene, we will do so with their input and partnership.’’
Kemp cited guidelines from the White House Coronavirus Task Force, issued last week, that outline the “reopening” criteria for states, including adequate COVID-19 testing, contact tracing, and health care capacity.
The guidance also says that before reopening, a state should have seen a decline in new COVID-19 cases for 14 days. That’s a criterion that Georgia has not yet met.
Several mayors dissatisfied
Mayors expressed surprise at the breadth of the Kemp plan.
Augusta Mayor Hardie Davis Jr., a Democrat, told CNN on Monday evening that he was “shocked’’ by the Kemp announcement.
Georgia’s level of testing for COVID-19, along with contact tracing and treatment, are not adequate now for the business reopening, Davis said. “Only 1 percent of Georgians have been tested,’’ he added.
Savannah Mayor Van Johnson, also a Democrat, said the reopening plan is “premature’’ and “places Savannahians at risk.”
“The politics in that are clear,” Johnson told the Savannah Morning News. “The governor has not communicated with the city of Savannah since this began, so he obviously doesn’t have a clue about the situation here on the ground in Savannah, our efforts or what we’re trying to do. Now, we’re prevented from taking any additional action.”
Tybee Island Mayor Shirley Sessions, whose office is a nonpartisan position, said, “Local government doesn’t have a say at this point. It really doesn’t matter what I think or what our council thinks. Right now it’s really up to the businesses and the public to decide if they’re ready or not.”
Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, a Democrat, told ABC News late Monday that she will urge residents to stay at home. “We don’t know what the governor is looking at, but what I do know is we have nearly 19,000 people who have tested positive as of this evening,” she said.
Not all mayors are critical of the move. Marietta Mayor “Thunder” Steve Tumlin, a Republican, posted a new itinerary on Facebook that included visits to a barber shop on Friday and a restaurant on Monday, the AJC reported. “Marietta will keep the light on for you as we respect the restrictions to protect and save each other,” the former state lawmaker wrote.
Athens-Clarke County Mayor Kelly Girtz, a Democrat, told CNN he would urge his community “to continue to shelter in place. Do not reopen at this point. It’s not the time to do it.”
He said COVID-19 testing is not adequate for the state to reopen businesses. “It’s like telling the quarterback, ‘We don’t have a helmet for you, we don’t have pads, but get out there on the field and just try not to get sacked.’ ”