Kemp, health experts urge mask wearing in Georgia

Gov. Brian Kemp (left) and Georgia Public Health Commissioner Dr. Kathleen Toomey (right) embarked on a statewide tour to promote mask use on July 1, 2020. (Gov. Kemp official Twitter account)

Gov. Brian Kemp is holding off on ordering a statewide mandate to wear masks in Georgia as positive cases of coronavirus and hospitalizations are on the rise.

The governor embarked on a six-city tour Wednesday morning to urge Georgians to wear masks, wash hands and keep their distance from each other in public.

But so far, Kemp is not following the lead of several other states and the city of Savannah in ordering people to wear masks, saying Georgians should don facial coverings to protect themselves and others regardless of any official requirements.

“We shouldn’t need a mask mandate for people to do the right thing,” Kemp said at a news conference Wednesday.

Meanwhile, doctors at Emory University and its affiliated hospital pressed for more people to wear masks as the virus gains steam, particularly ahead of the upcoming Fourth of July weekend.

They noted hospitalizations have doubled at Atlanta-based Emory Healthcare over the past week as concerns have soared that local health-care facilities in Georgia could be overwhelmed in the near future without better mask use, personal sanitizing and social distancing.

“I think the best way to show compassion is to wear a mask. If I care, I wear a mask,” said Dr. Carlos Del Rio, executive associate dean of the Emory University School of Medicine at Grady Health System.

As of Tuesday afternoon, more than 81,000 people had tested positive in Georgia for COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel strain of coronavirus that sparked a global pandemic. It had killed 2,805 Georgians.

Dr. Kathleen Toomey, the state’s public health commissioner, acknowledged the recent increases in positive COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations as she joined the governor on his “Wear A Mask” tour this week.

She urged Georgians who have tested positive to participate in the state’s contact-tracing efforts amid lackluster interest in some communities for the program, which aims to quickly pinpoint and curb local outbreaks.

“We’re concerned about the upticks,” Toomey said Wednesday. “But we can work together to stop this.”

Kemp also acknowledged the number of hospitalizations – a key marker in assessing the virus’ spread – has crept up in recent weeks following the Memorial Day holiday late last month.

He stressed local hospitals are largely prepared for an influx of hospitalizations due to COVID-19 but that some facilities have sought staffing support from the state.

“Thankfully, [hospitalizations] are not going up exponentially,” Kemp said Wednesday. “It’s worrisome but not alarming at this point. And we don’t want it to get alarming.”

The governor also highlighted a slowdown in deaths caused by the virus, marking an encouraging downward trend that comes even as case counts continue rising.

But Dr. Jonathan Lewin, Emory Healthcare’s chief executive officer, tempered that optimism by cautioning hospitals will likely see deaths go up in the next few weeks as more patients receive treatment.

He also noted hospitals are facing increased numbers of patients who are younger and have slacked off on social distancing measures over the past month.

Lewin, like his Emory colleague Del Rio, urged local leaders Wednesday “to be more forceful” in compelling people to wear masks, highlighting evidence that shows states and cities in the U.S. that require mask-wearing have seen transmission rates decrease.

“From a scientific basis, we feel strongly about that,” Lewin said Wednesday. “If everyone wears a face mask, we can stop the spread of this virus.”

On Wednesday, Savannah became the first major city in Georgia to require that people wear masks in public. Other states including New York, California and Kentucky have also implemented mask mandates.

Kemp said Wednesday he had not talked yet with his legal team about whether to consider overturning Savannah’s mask mandate under his emergency executive powers, which supersede any local rules imposed during the pandemic.

He criticized the outcry from some elected officials and leaders for mask mandates as political distractions.

“The whole mask issue right now, in my opinion, is being over-politicized,” Kemp said. “And that’s not what we should be doing.”

Lewin, of Emory, also dismissed any partisanship involved with masks. He argued universal mask-wearing would bolster both public health and the state’s economic recovery.

“Whatever our elected leaders can do to increase the compliance with masking, whatever our elected leaders can do to decrease the partisanship that’s currently seen around masking, the more likely we are to get through this without seeing more economic damage,” Lewin said.

Kemp extends COVID-19 social distancing rules

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

Gov. Brian Kemp moved Monday to extend social distancing rules for businesses and stay-at-home orders for the state’s most vulnerable populations another two weeks amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

The governor also plans to extend the state’s public health emergency until Aug. 11, granting him more than a month to continue tapping into broad powers that allow him to issue executive orders.

The extended orders announced Monday ban gatherings of more than 50 people unless there is at least six feet of distance between them and require restaurants, bars and other businesses to keep their establishments routinely sanitized.

Georgians in long-term elderly care facilities and those with chronic health conditions will need to remain sheltered in place through July 15.

The governor also directed state education officials to draw up safe reopening rules for local school districts eyeing ways to resume in-person classes for the upcoming school year.

On Monday, Kemp acknowledged state health officials have seen an increase in positive cases and hospitalizations due to coronavirus in recent days, prompting him to order extensions of current social distancing rules.

“As we continue our fight against COVID-19 in Georgia, it is vital that Georgians continue to heed public health guidance by wearing a mask, washing their hands regularly and practicing social distancing,” the governor said late Monday.

“We have made decisions throughout the pandemic to protect the lives – and livelihoods – of all Georgians by relying on data and the advice of public health officials.”

Kemp has steadily eased up on social distancing requirements for Georgia businesses and other gathering spots since ending the state’s mandatory stay-at-home order at the end of April.

Since then, restaurants, bars and other social hotspots have been allowed to reopen with gradually loosened restrictions on occupancy limits and distancing rules.

The distancing extensions announced Monday come as positive coronavirus cases have ticked up in recent weeks following the Memorial Day holiday period late last month, according to data from the state Department of Public Health.

As of Monday afternoon, more than 79,000 people had tested positive in Georgia for COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel strain of coronavirus that sparked a global pandemic. The virus had killed 2,784 Georgians.

So far, Kemp has resisted pressure to impose a statewide mask mandate in Georgia as several states including New York, California and Kentucky have recently required residents to wear facial coverings in public.

Savannah Mayor Van Johnson has signaled he may place the city under a mask-wearing requirement as positive cases continue climbing.

The governor’s office insisted Monday the number of people dying from coronavirus remains low in Georgia while local outbreaks appear to be clustered in workplace settings, houses of worship and social gatherings.

Kemp is poised to embark on a five-city tour across the state this week to urge Georgians to wear masks and keep their distance from each other ahead of the upcoming July 4th holiday weekend.

The governor’s office also announced bulk shipments of face masks are being sent to local governments and schools in around three dozen counties.

Kemp also plans to hold a conference call Tuesday with school officials on how to distribute 2 million masks to local schools before students return for classes in the coming months.

Additionally, the governor circulated guidance Monday on how city and county governments hit hard by the pandemic can tap into roughly $1.2 billion remaining in federal coronavirus aid.

About $1.8 billion in funding from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES) has already been sent to five metro-Atlanta governments, according to Kemp’s office.

Criminal justice, COVID-19 highlight bills Georgia lawmakers passed this year

Georgia Senate lawmakers celebrate the end of the 2020 legislative session by tossing ripped-up bills on the chamber floor on June 26, 2020. (Photo by Beau Evans)

Georgia lawmakers just wrapped up this year’s wrangling of bills at the state Capitol, managing to push through several pieces of legislation in a hectic two-week period marked by fears over coronavirus.

Hundreds of bills fell by the wayside as the COVID-19 pandemic rushed into Georgia starting in mid-March. Lawmakers in the General Assembly took a three-month hiatus, then returned earlier this month to pass landmark legislation on hate crimes, a tax on vaping, cuts to standardized tests – and much, much more.

Here’s a roundup of key bills the General Assembly passed before the close of the 2020 legislative session last Friday night:

Criminal Justice

Hate Crimes (H.B. 426) – Creates punishments for hate crimes that include acts of violent intimidation or property damage perpetrated based on a victim’s race, color, religion, nationality, sexual orientation, sex, gender, or whether they have a physical or mental disability.

Police Protections (H.B. 838) – Criminalizes acts of bias-motivated violence and property damage committed based on a person’s occupation as a first responder including police officers, firefighters and medics.

Second Chance (S.B. 288) – Allows ex-offenders with certain first-time misdemeanor and non-violent felony convictions to petition the court to have their criminal records shielded from public view. Convictions for certain domestic and nuisance charges like family violence and stalking, plus other major offenses like sex crimes, drunk driving and child molestation, would not be eligible for records shielding.

Glynn County (S.B. 509) – Puts to voters whether to abolish the Glynn County Police Department and transfer the agency’s assets and functions to the Glynn County Sheriff’s Office.

Courts

Bail Bonds (S.B. 402) – Abolishes so-called “signature” bonds that allow arrested persons to be released on their own recognizance without having to post monetary bail. Certain kinds of non-monetary bail would still be permitted but not for felony charges including murder, rape, drug trafficking, drunk driving or criminal street gang activity.

Sovereign Immunity (H.R. 1023) – Puts to voters whether to give Georgians the ability to sue their state and local governments over laws or policies deemed unconstitutional. Plaintiffs would not be able to collect monetary damages or attorneys’ fees.

Judge Salaries (S.B. 765) – Raises salaries for chief magistrate judges by several thousand dollars per year in Georgia, taking effect in 2022.

Taxes

Marketplace Facilitators (H.B. 276) – Collects sales taxes on online transactions overseen by so-called “marketplace facilitator” companies like Google, Amazon and eBay. (Ride-share companies like Uber and Lyft are exempted from the state sales tax and instead must pay a flat fee of 50 cents per ride.)

Vape Tax (S.B. 375) – Levies a 7% excise tax on vaping products and raises the minimum age to purchase tobacco and vaping products from 18 to 21 in Georgia.

Film Credits (H.B. 1037) – Requires all film productions located in Georgia to undergo mandatory audits by the Georgia Department of Revenue or third-party auditors picked by the state agency.

Hurricane Michael (H.B. 105) – Allows Georgia farmers who sustained damage related to Hurricane Michael and are receiving federal disaster aid to take an income tax exemption. (This bill also allows ride-share companies like Uber and Lyft to pay a fee of 50 cents per ride instead of the newly implemented “marketplace facilitators” online sales tax.)

Business

Alcohol Deliveries (H.B. 879) – Allows restaurants, grocery stores and other businesses licensed to sell alcohol to make home deliveries of beer, wine and distilled spirits in Georgia.

Hemp Licensing (H.B. 847) – Requires licenses to be carried by business owners whose trade involves the cultivation, transportation or selling of hemp products. The licensing requirements also apply for university and research firms focused on hemp.

Break Times (H.B. 1090) – Requires employers to give paid break times for employees who are nursing newborns to express breast milk on the premises.

Coronavirus

Lawsuit Liability (S.B. 395) – Shields Georgia businesses and health-care providers against legal liability from persons who contract COVID-19 on their premises from all but the worst negligence cases. Includes provisions for posting COVID-19 warning signs at premise entrances and on event tickets.

Unemployment Benefits (S.B. 408) – Extends unemployment benefits that have been expanded during the coronavirus pandemic since March. The state labor commissioner would have leeway to extend benefits eligibility from 14 weeks to 26 weeks depending on the jobless rate and to set the weekly deductible threshold at between $50 and $300.

PPE Tax Credits (H.B. 846) — Allows businesses manufacturing personal protective equipment (PPE) in Georgia to be eligible for an additional $1,250 tax credit per job. PPE includes gloves, masks, hand sanitizer, face shields, helmets, goggles and respirators used to shield people from contracting coronavirus.

Education

Standardized Tests (S.B. 367)Reduces the number of standardized tests required to be administered in Georgia public schools by five and allows state education officials to study whether other tests could be eliminated due to redundancy.

Dual Enrollment (H.B. 444) – Caps the dual enrollment program for high schoolers seeking to acquire college credits at 30 hours per year for most students and scraps several course offerings that do not deal with core subjects, such as aerobics classes.

“Save Our Sandwiches” Act (S.B. 345) – Allows nonprofit groups to provide sandwiches for needy children when school is not in session.

Health Care

Surprise Billing (H.B. 888) – Curbs the chances for patients to receive unexpectedly high hospital bills by requiring health insurers and health-care providers to settle cost disputes arising from emergency medical procedures performed by out-of-network providers.

Pharmacy Benefit Managers (H.B. 946) – Sets new restrictions on third-party companies that negotiate prescription drug prices with pharmacies to curb price gouging, largely by forcing those companies to stay within 10% of a nationally used price average and offer up full rebates to health plans that are typically given by drugmakers.

Maternal Mortality (H.B. 1114) – Authorizes the state to apply for a federal waiver extending Medicaid coverage to new mothers for up to six months after birth instead of the current limit of two months.

Elderly Care (H.B. 987) – Establishes stricter training and on-site nursing requirements for elderly care facilities in Georgia. Also requires long-term care facilities to report when residents or staff test positive for COVID-19 and to keep a seven-day supply of PPE like masks and hand sanitizer.

Environment

Coal Ash (S.B. 123)Increases fees for storing toxic coal ash at landfills in Georgia from $1 per ton to $2.50 per ton.

Creosote burning (H.B. 857) – Bans utilities from burning wooden railroad ties treated in creosote to produce electricity.

Ethylene Oxide (S.B. 426) – Requires power plants and manufacturing companies to report spills of toxic waste or noxious fumes within 24 hours.

Timber Construction (H.B. 777) – Allows buildings constructed of “mass timber” to rise as high as 18 stories instead of the current limit of six floors.

Human Trafficking

“Debbie Vance” Act (S.B. 435) – Allows victims of human trafficking to petition the court to vacate convictions for crimes committed while they were being trafficked.

Driver’s Licenses (H.B. 823) – Imposes lifetime ban on driving a commercial vehicle for people convicted of human trafficking while using commercial vehicles to transport their victims.

Foster Care

Sexual Contact (H.B. 911) – Sets punishments for foster parents who engage in improper sexual contact with foster children in their care.

COVID-19 lawsuit protections passed for Georgia businesses, hospitals

State lawmakers passed a bill to limit liability for Georgia businesses and health-care providers amid the coronavirus pandemic. (Image: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

Legislation aimed at shielding Georgia businesses and health-care providers from lawsuits brought by people who contract coronavirus cleared the General Assembly Friday night during the final hours of this year’s legislative session.

The state House of Representatives passed the bill 104-56 largely along party lines, with Republicans supporting it and most Democrats voting against it. The Georgia Senate followed a short time later, approving the measure 34-16.

The bill would protect a range of Georgia enterprises from mom-and-pop shops to sports stadiums from coronavirus-related legal claims, so long as they post certain warning signs and do not willfully or grossly neglect their patrons or workers.

Hospitals and doctors’ offices would also be shielded from civil liability under the measure that lawmakers pushed through in the closing hours of the 2020 session.

Businesses and hospitals where people contract coronavirus on their premises would not be given total immunity from lawsuits under the measure, Senate Bill 359. But the bar would be set high for bringing a legal claim.

The intent is to give local businesses and health-care workers confidence their actions likely won’t lead to lawsuits as they continue struggling amid the coronavirus pandemic, supporters said.

“The COVID crisis is serious,” said House Majority Whip Trey Kelley, R-Cedartown. “It’s affected all of us. We need to offer protections to our business community and our health-care community.”

But Democrats argued the protections the bill offers to businesses would come at the expense of their workers.

“Businesses don’t get COVID. People get COVID,” said House Minority Leader Robert Trammell, D-Luthersville. “This bill doesn’t seek to protect people against COVID. It seeks to protect businesses against people.”

Under the bill, stores, stadiums, offices, hospitals and more would have to show gross or willful negligence in a way that leads people to contract coronavirus in order be held liable in court.

Businesses and health-care providers would also be protected from all but the most serious negligence cases if they install entrance signs warning patrons and patients about the dangers posed by coronavirus.

In part, the signs would have to read: “You are assuming this risk by entering these premises.”

Warning notes printed on event tickets and wristbands would also be enough to alert patrons that businesses have waived civil liability for COVID-19 claims.

Lawsuits could be brought by those who contract coronavirus or any of its mutations before July 15, 2021. Employees would still be covered under the state’s workers’ compensation laws.

The fine-tuned language for the bill was hashed out by lawmakers, business leaders, health-care professionals and trial attorneys in the hours leading up to the session’s ending Friday night.

Kelley, who oversaw negotiating in a House committee Thursday, pledged to revisit the hastily crafted bill during next year’s legislative session.

Supporters of COVID-19 liability protections framed the bill as needed to help businesses resume relatively normal operations without fear of being hammered by litiation.

Doctors and health-care workers, particularly in small communities and rural areas, would be freed up to treat patients and feel less anxious over potentially being served with a crippling lawsuit, said Bethany Sherrer, legal counsel for the Medical Association of Georgia.

“It’s been a really difficult time for smaller practices across the state,” Sherrer told House lawmakers Thursday night. “Obviously, this is really important to them.”

Hospital representatives and trial attorneys largely agreed on the details of legislation containing the liability protections in talks that stretched late into the night Thursday.

Notably, they settled on the legal standard of “gross negligence” as the liability threshold, agreeing that standard was stiff but not impossible for truly injured Georgians to seek court remedies.

“If there’s gross negligence, the assumption of risk is not going to get the venue or owner of a facility out of jail free, so to speak,” said Alan Hamilton, a trial attorney based in Atlanta and St. Simons Island. “[But only] if there’s gross negligence, which is a very high hurdle.”

Debate on the bill ran up to the final moments of the session, as several Senate lawmakers complained the “gross negligence” standard in the House bill would be too weak to protect businesses. But time had run out to make any more changes, they said.

“Unfortunately, I think we are faced with a hostage choice,” said Sen. John Kennedy, R-Macon. “It’s not where we need to be. It’s not where our businesses need to be.”

Last-minute talks also centered on whether professional and college sports teams would be protected under the liability terms if they allow fans in their stadiums when games resume.

Atlanta sports teams including the Falcons, Braves, Hawks and United all backed the bill, said Jonathan Crumly, an attorney and lobbyist representing those teams.

“We will have severe interference with sports games and professional teams having fans in the stadiums if we don’t get COVID-19 immunity passed,” Crumly told lawmakers Thursday.

But others condemned the liability protections, arguing lawsuit immunity for all but the least-safe businesses could come at the expense of workers. The Georgia branch of the AFL-CIO workers’ union called liability measures like the one passed Friday night a threat to worker health and safety.

“By shifting the responsibilities of maintaining a clean, healthy environment that offers adequate personal protective equipment, corporations can claim immunity and therefore wash their hands of any responsibility to the working men and women of our state,” the union said.

Break times to pump breast milk required in legislature-passed bill

Employers will need to provide break time for mothers to express breast milk while at work under legislation that passed the General Assembly Friday.

House Bill 1090 requires employers to provide a private area that is not a bathroom for employees to express breast milk. Break times for that purpose would have to last for “a reasonable duration” and could not cut into an employee’s paid leave or salary.

Those rules would apply for school districts, government agencies and businesses with 50 employees or more, but not for employees working remotely.

Businesses with fewer than 50 employees would be given leeway to skip the requirements if creating private break rooms for employees to express breast milk would create “an undue hardship” either from cost or space constraints.

Sponsored by Rep. Debra Silcox, R-Sandy Springs, the bill passed out of the state Senate Thursday by a 45-1 vote. Sen. Bill Heath, R-Bremen, opposed it.

The bill then cleared the state House Friday evening by a 150-13 vote. It now heads to Gov. Brian Kemp’s desk for his signature.

Silcox’s bill mirrors legislation brought in the Senate earlier in the 2020 legislative session by Sen. Zahra Karinshak, D-Duluth.

Speaking from the Senate floor Thursday, Karinshak said the bill would help working moms in Georgia care for their newborns without fear of losing their jobs.

“It is a wonderful day for working families in Georgia to pass this bill,” Karinshak said.

Sen. Nan Orrock, D-Atlanta, agreed the measure would help Georgia women as well as their children who would also benefit from the workplace protections.

“Let us never forget that we have come full circle to understand that mother’s milk is what the infant needs,” Orrock said.

Georgia film tax poised for more scrutiny in legislature-approved bill

New scrutiny will be applied to tax credits that relieve film companies from having to pay billions of dollars annually in Georgia under legislation that passed out of the General Assembly Friday.

House Bill 1037, by Rep. Matt Dollar, R-Marietta, would require all film productions located in Georgia to undergo mandatory audits by the Georgia Department of Revenue or third-party auditors picked by the state agency.

It would also tighten rules for how film companies could transfer or sell unused tax credits to other businesses, a common practice for production groups that conduct part of their movie-making work outside Georgia.

The Georgia Senate passed the measure by a 45-1 vote Thursday, with the state House of Representatives following suit on Friday by a 154-10 vote. The bill now heads to Gov. Brian Kemp’s desk for his signature.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Hufstetler, R-Rome, said the measure would help the state keep a closer eye on how lucrative tax credits are doled out.

“This is full auditing of all the film tax credits,” Hufstetler said Thursday. “Nothing more, nothing less.”

The measure’s passage comes after two scathing audits released in January that found the film tax credit program has been poorly managed while its financial impacts on the state economy were exaggerated.

Supporters of the credit point out it still brings huge economic benefits to the state despite the management shortcomings.

Backers include several local economists who have criticized on the audit findings, arguing the analysis ignored the impacts brought by billions of dollars and thousands of jobs that the industry generates in Georgia each year.

Those economic boons were enough to discourage state lawmakers from trying to curb or cap the film tax credit amid the coronavirus pandemic, which has pummeled the state budget.

Many lawmakers who favor closing tax loopholes over spending cuts to fix the budget were met with calls to keep hands off the film credit during the 2020 legislative session.

Still, the measure was pared back from its original version that proposed including more business operations under the credit program, including media coverage and broadcasts of large sporting events like the upcoming FIFA World Cup. That addition was yanked from the bill before final passage.