Georgia court rules adjusted to account for coronavirus

Georgia Chief Justice Harold Melton

ATLANTA – The Georgia Supreme Court is loosening restrictions governing certain court proceedings to adjust to the realities of the coronavirus pandemic.

The court declared a state judicial emergency March 14, ordering courts throughout Georgia to remain open to carry out critical functions.

Additional orders issued Tuesday and during the past week amend certain court rules to allow such things as the use of video conferences and telephone conferences in certain proceedings that normally require the physical presence of the judge and the parties to a case. The rules also encourage courts to livestream proceedings via the internet to give the public access.

“The purpose of these orders is to enable all our courts to continue conducting essential court business while protecting citizens, judges, lawyers, and others from unnecessary exposure to the coronavirus,” Chief Justice Harold Melton said.

The high court issued five separate orders approving amendments to rules affecting superior and state courts, probate courts, municipal courts, juvenile courts, and magistrate courts.

Georgia governor sends National Guard to elderly care homes amid coronavirus

Gov. Brian Kemp calls for vulnerable residents to take precautions as coronavirus spreads in Georgia in this March 12, 2020 photo. (Photo by Beau Evans)

Gov. Brian Kemp is sending more than 100 Georgia National Guard members to oversee operations at assisted-living facilities and nursing homes in the state where elderly residents have been infected with coronavirus.

Senior citizens are among the most vulnerable populations at risk for harmful health effects from COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel strain of coronavirus that has sparked a global pandemic. The virus had infected at least 3,817 people and killed 108 in Georgia as of noon Tuesday.

On Tuesday, 20 National Guard members were deployed to Pelham Parkway Nursing Home in South Georgia, according to a news release from the governor’s office. The Pelham facility has reported five residents tested positive for coronavirus, Kemp’s office said.

The 20 soldiers in Pelham are tasked with cleaning the facility, auditing its sanitation methods and training staff on measures aimed at halting the virus’ spread. Clusters of four or five soldiers will head to other elderly care facilities across the state in the coming weeks, according to the news release.

In all, 100 National Guard members will fan out across the state to help prop up nursing homes and assisted living facilities.

“The Georgia National Guard stands ready to assist any long-term care facility in this time of need through staff training and implementation of infectious disease control measures,” said Adjutant General Tom Carden. “Our training has prepared us to fight this virus, and we are eager to lend a hand in this battle.”

Kemp previously had ordered residents in elderly care facilities to remain sheltered-in-place until noon Monday, April 6. His office, along with the Georgia Health Care Association, also previously called on the state’s nursing homes and assisted-living facilities to restrict visitations, eliminate group activities like community dining and routinely screen both residents and staff for symptoms of the respiratory virus.

“Georgia’s top priority is increasing health-care capacity to protect vulnerable Georgians, especially those residing in long-term care facilities,” Kemp said in a statement. “If we can keep these populations as healthy as possible, we will be able to conserve precious medical supplies and hospital bed space in the coming days and weeks.”

Georgia Power launching beneficial reuse project for coal ash

Georgia Power’s Plant Mitchell was retired in 2016.

ATLANTA – Georgia Power Co. plans to convert coal ash stored at one of its retired power plants into a component of Portland cement, the Atlanta-based utility announced Tuesday.

The beneficial reuse project, a first for Georgia, will be launched later this year at Plant Mitchell near Albany. About two million tons of stored coal ash at the site will be removed.

“As part of our ash pond closure efforts, Georgia Power is always looking for opportunities to reuse coal ash that are beneficial for our customers and communities,” said Mark Berry, the utility’s vice president of environmental and natural resources. “The coal ash beneficial reuse project at Plant Mitchell will save space in landfills and ultimately serve to help produce a valuable product.”

Coal ash is the residue left behind after burning coal to fuel power plants. It can contain a number of toxic chemicals, including lead, selenium and arsenic.

Coal ash was a controversial topic during this year’s General Assembly session, which was suspended indefinitely more than two weeks ago because of the coronavirus outbreak.

Before that, Democrats pushed legislation that would require Georgia Power to install impervious liners under 10 of the utility’s 29 ash ponds. Georgia Power plans to excavate and remove ash from the other 19 ponds.

But majority Republicans opposed the legislation. Instead, the state House of Representatives passed three other bills imposing additional regulations on the disposal of coal ash but stopping short of requiring liners.

Plant Mitchell was retired in 2016 as part of a Georgia Power plan approved by the state Public Service Commission. At the completion of the ash conversion project there, the ash pond site will be restored as usable property.

Separately, Georgia Power issued an initial request for proposals in January to identify and pursue other opportunities for the beneficial reuse of coal ash stored at its power plants across the state. A more detailed RFP is due to be released by the end of April to qualified bidders.

Additionally, Georgia Power plans to open a research facility later this year at Plant Bowen to identify, test and speed the development of beneficial uses for coal ash. Georgia Power will partner with the Palo Alto, Calif.-based Electric Power Research Institute on the research center.

Georgia tapping university labs to boost coronavirus tests

Testing has lagged in Georgia and across the U.S. for how many positive cases there are of COVID-19 . (Image: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

State officials are looking to give testing for coronavirus a big boost in Georgia through collaboration between the state’s public health lab and universities as the death toll from the respiratory illness continues to climb.

Testing has lagged in Georgia and across the U.S. relative to the number of cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel strain of coronavirus that has sparked a global pandemic. As of noon Tuesday, Georgia had logged 16,181 tests since kicking off lab work earlier in March.

Nearly 90% of those tests have been completed by private commercial labs, according to the state Department of Public Health. State officials and health experts have repeatedly called for more testing to help keep better track of where and how the highly infectious virus is spreading.

In a news release, Gov. Brian Kemp’s office said state health officials working with the University System of Georgia and Emory University are undertaking a “laboratory surge capacity plan” to increase coronavirus testing by processing more than 3,000 samples per day. The extra processing started Tuesday.

The plan involves transferring testing equipment from university research labs in the state to accredited clinical labs at Georgia State University, Augusta University, Emory University and the Georgia Public Health lab. Kemp’s office also stepped in to speed up purchases of equipment and testing reagents needed for the labs to jump-start the surge plan over this week.

“We hope this surge capacity plan will allow federal and state public health officials to gain a more complete picture of COVID-19’s impact on Georgia and better inform our collective decisions going forward,” Kemp said in a statement. “We expect this plan will lead to greater testing capacity and more insight into the number of positive cases in our state.”

Kemp’s office also said the governor has authorized a group of top state health officials to “validate new laboratory methods and implement new solutions and technologies to safeguard our testing infrastructure.”

That step was taken to help accredited labs keep testing as tight availability of supplies like reagents and swabs from commercial manufacturers and supply chain disruptions continue posing major hurdles for ramping up coronavirus testing, the governor’s office said.

“This collaboration will not only provide much-needed capacity now, but it will ensure a robust state infrastructure for the future,” said Dr. Kathleen Toomey, the state public health commissioner.

More than 3,800 people had tested positive for coronavirus in Georgia as of noon Tuesday. The virus had killed 108 people.

Online sales tax collections to start in Georgia with ride-shares included

Tax collections on sales by third-party online sellers in Georgia like Google and Amazon take effect Wednesday, including for ride-hailing companies that were due for an exemption before coronavirus shuttered the General Assembly.

Collecting sales taxes on big online retailers could reel in around $100 million annually for the state plus tens of millions of dollars more for local governments, according to a fiscal analysis. The extra revenues were billed as a needed boost for the state amid sluggish tax collections and agency budget cuts.

Lawmakers pushed through a measure in January to start collecting online sales taxes. Part of the deal involved passing a separate arrangement for ride-hailing companies like Uber and Lyft, which favor paying a flat fee of 50 cents per ride instead of the sales tax.

Uber representatives said paying sales taxes would increase costs for customers and reduce earnings for drivers. The 50-cent fee structure they want was tacked onto a bill to ease income-tax requirements for Georgia farmers hit hard by Hurricane Michael in 2018. It cleared the Georgia House March 12 and appeared set for quick passage in the state Senate.

Then, coronavirus swept across Georgia, forcing the General Assembly to suspend the legislative session indefinitely. Hundreds of bills, including the 50-cent fee measure, wait in limbo until the legislature reconvenes.

“There’s probably 30 or 40 bills that we really need to pass,” said Senate Majority Whip Steve Gooch, R-Dahlonega. “And the rest of them we may have to wait until next year.”

The fee measure for ride-share companies is one of the bills lawmakers aim to pass when they return to wrap up the session, said Gooch, who has led the push to pass the fee.

Gooch said he plans to ask Gov. Brian Kemp to issue an executive order giving ride-share companies an exemption from the online sales tax, which takes effect April 1. But he did not know what Kemp’s appetite for that might be.

The complication arose when the House added a last-minute amendment to the fee measure, House Bill 105, that sought to make it clear that revenues from the fee would be earmarked for public transit. Without that amendment, the bill would have gone straight to the governor when it passed out of the House.

Gooch said lawmakers have no idea when they will resume this year’s session. That decision is up to Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan in the Senate and Speaker David Ralston in the House.

“It’s unfortunate,” Gooch said. “But it’s just one of those unusual circumstances you can’t do much about until you get back to Atlanta.”

Meanwhile, the state Department of Revenue is poised to start collecting the online sales taxes, regardless of any intent lawmakers have for exempting ride-share companies from the tax and charging them a fee instead.

“Since legislation that would modify the tax rate for ride-share companies has not finalized its way through the legislative process, the provisions of [the collections bill] will apply,” said Jessica Simmons, deputy commissioner for the revenue department.

Uber may end up offering a refund for riders charged more per trip with the sales tax until the 50-cent fee is passed, but for now the focus is on responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“While sales tax will begin applying to rides on April 1, we are advocating for a resolution when the legislature returns with the passage and signing of [fee measure],” said Evangeline George, a spokeswoman for the San Francisco-based company. “The safety and well-being of Georgians is rightfully the top priority for the state right now.”