Georgia Democrats press governor for quicker jobless aid, eviction relief

Coronavirus has sickened hundreds of thousands people and killed thousands more in Georgia. (Image: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

Georgia House Democratic lawmakers pressed Gov. Brian Kemp Wednesday to clear the state’s backlog of unprocessed unemployment claims and reimpose a 60-day halt to evictions amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a letter to the governor, members of the Georgia House Democratic Caucus highlighted frequent complaints from constituents that their unemployment claims have not been processed after long delays while tens of thousands of Georgians face “an imminent eviction crisis.”

Kemp has steadily allowed businesses, schools and other institutions in Georgia to reopen since late April with certain safety measures in place, an approach the House Democrats’ letter faults as too hands-off to address economic insecurity issues across the state.

“The sober reality is that there is no market-based or voluntary response that will adequately stem the tide of economic loss, displacement and profound suffering resulting from the pandemic,” the letter says.

The letter urges Kemp to authorize a one-time preliminary grant of all unemployment claims that have been pending for 30 days or more, boost staffing at the state Department of Labor to process the claims backlog faster and implement a review period for claims after approval.

It also recommends Kemp immediately renew a statewide 60-day pause on evictions after a previous moratorium expired in July, and to use emergency aid and grant funds to increase housing and rental assistance for Georgians struggling to make monthly payments.

“Particularly now that federal … unemployment payments have expired, thousands of Georgians are facing severe and immediate economic instability,” the letter says. “Current trends in unemployment and eviction are an immediate crisis of humanity that will have ripple effects well into Georgia’s future.”

Kemp has frequently sought to cast the coronavirus pandemic as both a major public-health and economic crisis, advancing policies aimed at allowing businesses to recover as much as possible back to normal while imposing social distancing and cleanliness requirements to curb the virus’ spread.

He has faced months of criticism for not issuing a statewide mask mandate per recommendations from health experts and recent White House coronavirus task force reports. The letter from Democratic lawmakers also called on him to require masks.

On Tuesday, Kemp called on Georgians to wash hands, keep distance, follow sanitization precautions and voluntarily wear masks.

“Do it for your family and friends, do it for your faith community, or do it for college football,” Kemp said. “No matter your reason, hunker down, stay focused and do four things for fall.”

Kemp drops lawsuit against Atlanta mask, public gathering restrictions

Gov. Brian Kemp is dropping a lawsuit against Atlanta officials and Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms over the city’s mask mandate following weeks of negotiations toward a settlement amid the COVID-19 pandemic, his office announced Thursday.

But the governor signaled he plans to take new action on business and masking rules following months of loosening restrictions, claiming Atlanta’s mayor decided “she will not agree to a settlement that safeguards the rights of private property owners in Georgia.”

“Given this stalemate in negotiations, we will address this very issue in the next executive order,” Kemp said in a statement. “We will continue to protect the lives and livelihoods of all Georgians.”

State officials said negotiations with Bottoms stalled as the mayor pushed for enforcing the mask mandate on Atlanta businesses and other private property. Both sides had agreed to let the city keep its mask mandate so long as it was not enforced in residences and penalties were capped for non-compliance.

The current COVID-19 order, which expires Saturday, includes distancing and sanitizing requirements for social gathering spots like bars and restaurants as well as a prohibition on local governments from enforcing their own mask mandates.

Kemp has made clear he will not order any statewide masking requirements, opting instead to encourage voluntary widespread mask use. His office has called local mandates unenforceable.

The lawsuit, filed last month by Kemp and Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr, sought to have a Fulton County Superior Court judge declare unlawful a citywide masking requirement imposed by Bottoms earlier in July.

It marked an intense ratcheting up of the dispute between Kemp, who has insisted on keeping mask-wearing voluntary, and several Georgia mayors including Bottoms, who want local control over mandatory measures to help curb the virus’ spread.

The governor’s office was quick to point out the lawsuit mostly took aim at steps Bottoms took in July to resume limits on public gatherings to 10 persons in Atlanta and to reimpose a shelter-at-home order for city residents.

Bottoms stressed she intended for those resumed restrictions, which were in place during April under a statewide order by Kemp, to be voluntary for Atlanta.

Additionally, the lawsuit sought to bar Bottoms from “issuing press releases, or making statements to the press, that she has the authority to impose more or less restrictive measures than are ordered” by the governor.

Bottoms, who tested positive for COVID-19 in July, has cast the governor’s priorities as misplaced in light of the impacts of the virus, which has sickened hundreds of thousands of people in Georgia and killed thousands more.