Macon-Bibb leaders urge Gov. Kemp to let them decide when to reopen


Liz Fabian

As Macon-Bibb County expects a COVID-19 peak in mid-May, local leaders want Gov. Kemp to give them authority to decide when to reopen nonessential businesses.

With the threat of the worst of the COVID-19 outbreak still ahead of Macon-Bibb County, local leaders want to control when closed businesses should reopen.

Both the Macon-Bibb County Commission and the Board of Health passed resolutions urging Gov. Brian Kemp to reconsider his statewide order that would allow hair and nail salons, gyms, tattoo parlors and other businesses to reopen Friday.

Mayor Robert Reichert said the order took him by surprise.

“He didn’t allow any flexibility for local government to add to or take away from his order so we are without the authority to pass any order or legislation that would be in conflict with the governor’s order,” Reichert said during Tuesday night’s commission meeting.

The resolution asks the governor to allow the Macon-Bibb County Commission to specify when to reopen based on local conditions and rates of infection and recovery.

Commissioners Elaine Lucas and Joe Allen represent Macon-Bibb County on the health board and learned this week that Medical Center, Navicent Health, does not expect the coronavirus to peak until mid-May in Middle Georgia.

Allen questioned why the governor would open up Macon when GEMA plans to build surplus beds adjacent to Medical Center, Navicent Health, to be ready in early May.

Both Allen and Lucas feel that it’s too early to reopen nonessential personal care businesses this week and too soon for theaters and restaurants to follow next week.

“I’m not at ease knowing this virus is still out there and can still take someone’s life,” Allen said. “We know somebody will die if we allow this to happen. I don’t want it on my conscience that I didn’t stop it.”

During the board of health’s called meeting Wednesday morning, board member Chris Tsavatewa said he does not believe Kemp is following the White House guidelines of having a downward trend of documented cases over a 14-day period before easing restrictions.

“I think the executive order fails to meet the threshold of gating criteria set by the feds,” Tsavatewa said. “Using a blanket standard fails to mitigate risk of resurgence.”

He cited Georgia’s “abysmal” level of testing compared to other states.

The health department’s resolution notes that it was only last Friday that Bibb County began testing the public without a health care provider’s prior approval.

The board is asking the governor to rescind his order stating: “Macon-Bibb County and similarly situated counties would benefit from a more measured, specifically tailored approach to reopening businesses based on local input, local control and home rule instead of a one-size-fits-all pronouncement.”

As commissioners debated their response to the governor’s order, Commissioner Valerie Wynn said that after a month on lockdown some business owners are anxious to reopen.

“Hopefully our citizens will make up their minds about how to act and react to what the governor has permitted us to do and use their best judgment without us having to tell them what to do,” Wynn said before being the only commissioner to vote against the resolution.

Lucas stressed that the commissioners need to consider everyone, including children who aren’t hold enough to bear personal responsibility and senior citizens who rely on others for their care.

“There are too many people in this community who are still getting together and having parties and spreading the virus all over the place,” Lucas said. “There’s too much stupidity going on in too many places and we don’t want any of our folks to be the victims of this stupidity.”

Commissioner Larry Schlesinger favors keeping restaurants open so people can provide for their families, but is concerned that the governor’s order prohibits local governments from reacting if conditions worsen.

“If we get a spike here… we are really powerless at this point to act immediately and do something that’s going to be effective for our local community,” Schlesinger said. “All of a sudden we as a body have become powerless.”

Commissioner Mallory Jones questioned whether the county’s resolution would do any good to persuade Kemp to allow for more rigorous restrictions on business operations.

Jones favors a more local approach similar to the Trump administration deferring to governors to determine when to reopen.  Jones would like to see Kemp pass that authority to local governing bodies who are in a better position to assess the situation.

“I don’t ever like it when our authority is pre-empted at the state level,” Jones said.

If the governor does not rescind the order, the local board of health is exploring its legal options to determine how it can intervene and enforce quarantines should the community experience a surge in cases.

Contact Civic Reporting Senior Fellow Liz Fabian at 478-301-2976 or [email protected].