End nears for Georgia shelter-in-place order, extension undecided

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

With only a day left on the clock, Gov. Brian Kemp has not revealed whether or not he plans to extend Georgia’s shelter-in-place order before it expires.

The governor’s office was expected to make an announcement on the order Wednesday, but he will instead hold off until Thursday, his communications director, Candice Broce, confirmed.

Kemp is weighing whether and how to relax mandatory social restrictions in place since April 3 that have required people to remain at home except for essential errands like grocery runs and to exercise, and for most businesses to limit their operations only to levels that will keep them financially afloat.

The order has already been extended once since it was first issued on April 3. It is set to expire at 11:59 p.m. Thursday.

In recent days, the governor has allowed many close-quarter businesses like the dine-in areas of restaurants, gyms and barbershops to reopen following weeks of mandatory closures. Other businesses including bars, nightclubs and amusement parks must still stay closed.

Kemp has drawn fire from many health experts and local elected officials since last week over his decision to let those businesses reopen. Critics have accused him of disregarding serious health and safety implications for Georgia residents, particularly the elderly and chronically ill, by relaxing social restrictions as they are just beginning to show results.

Many local doctors and health experts worry that ending the statewide shelter-in-place could cause a spike in positive COVID-19 cases, leading to a second wave of community outbreaks – though it is impossible to predict how severe that increase might be.

“You can just predict there will be an increase in cases,” said Dr. Ashley Register, a physician in Cairo. “And I think everyone’s frightened.”

Others expect most Georgians will simply continue to keep their distance from each other in public and delay reopening their businesses for the time being, despite the financial pain.

Dr. Karen Kinsell, a physician in Fort Gaines, said many people in her small-town Southwest Georgia community have told her recently “that it’s a horrible idea and they’re not going out anyway.”

“But there is always going to be somebody that doesn’t listen,” Kinsell said Wednesday. “It only takes a few people to see some really bad things again.”

To date, Kemp has defended his decision as a voluntary relief valve aimed at giving Georgia business owners the option, not a mandate, to reopen after weeks of forced closures.

At a news conference Monday, the governor said the state largely has been following federal guidelines for deciding when to let businesses reopen, while also weighing input from local health officials as well as the dire financial situation facing many business owners who have been shuttered for weeks.

“We are looking at depression-like unemployment,” Kemp said. “It has all tumbled off a cliff like it has in every state. But we will come back, and we will come back even stronger.”

Kemp and the state’s public health commissioner, Dr. Kathleen Toomey, have also cited models indicating that the spread of the virus is slowing.

On Monday, Toomey said Georgia is on track to see a “plateauing” of positive COVID-19 cases, even though the state had not met all the federal “gating” guidelines for allowing businesses to reopen. She noted cases of reported flu-like illnesses as well as hospitalizations have been declining and that positive cases have fallen “as a percentage of total tests.”

“We will continue to closely monitor the data to ensure these encouraging patterns we are seeing continue to improve,” Toomey said in a video Monday night.

However, models now being published and updated daily on the state Department of Public Health’s website are in many ways at odds with other modeling done by local university researchers, said Dr. Rebecca Mitchell, an epidemiologist and bioinformatician who is a visiting assistant professor at Emory University.

One study, released this week by the University of Georgia’s Center for the Ecology of Infectious Diseases, estimated that relaxing social distancing measures in place since March could cause an additional 1,500 deaths from coronavirus in Georgia, plus tens of thousands more cases.

Another modeling tool, created by researchers at Georgia Tech and Harvard Medical School, predicts a second wave of COVID-19 cases and deaths could soon hit Georgia if social restrictions are loosened.

Mitchell, who is running as a Democrat for the District 106 seat in the Georgia House, said Wednesday the severity of any future coronavirus outbreaks will depend on how much leeway Georgians will have to interact with each other.

“The more relaxed we are and the more willing people are to have face-to-face interactions with people, the stronger that new wave will be,” Mitchell said. “It’s just the size of the epidemic that we’re really talking about when we’re changing some of the social distancing requirements versus all of them.”

SK Innovation to build second EV battery plant in Georgia

SK Innovation will build a second EV battery plant near Commerce. (rendering)

ATLANTA – A South Korean battery manufacturer is planning to build a second electric vehicle (EV) battery plant in Jackson County, Reuters reported Tuesday.

SK Innovation broke ground in March of last year on its first U.S. EV battery plant near Commerce, with Gov. Brian Kemp and U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in attendance.

Construction on the second plant will start this summer, representing an investment of $727 million.

Together, investment on the two plants will total more than $1.5 billion. The plants aim to start production in 2002 and 2023, creating about 2,000 jobs when they reach full capacity by 2025.

Between them, the two plants represent a capacity of 21.5 gigawatt-hours of EV battery power.

SK Innovation, South Korea’s largest oil refiner, has expanded in recent years into EV batteries, with factories in South Korea, China and Hungary. The Georgia plants will supply the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., the Ford plant in Kentucky and possibly the BMW plant near Greenville, S.C.

Georgia sets daily coronavirus testing record

Gov. Brian Kemp gives an update on coronavirus in Georgia on March 9, 2020. (Photo by Beau Evans)

ATLANTA – The state’s effort to increase testing for COVID-19 is starting to pay off.

Nearly 13,000 new tests were reported to the Georgia Department of Public Health’s website Tuesday, the most in a single day since the coronavirus pandemic began.

Initially, the state was testing only elderly Georgians and those with chronic illnesses, considered the most vulnerable to contracting COVID-19, as well as health-care workers and first responders likely to be exposed to the virus.

On Monday, Gov. Brian Kemp said testing has been ramped up to the point that all Georgians showing symptoms can and should be tested. There’s also enough testing capacity to test Georgians without symptoms but who are health-care workers, first responders, law enforcement personnel or residents or staff of a long-term care facility, he said.

“We are making significant progress,” Kemp said Tuesday after reporting the record-high daily tests. “We are pushing our testing capacity to the max. … We have the sites, the physicians and the tests. We just need more Georgians to participate.

Kemp has made making tests more readily available a key component in his goal of reopening businesses he shut down early this month when he issued a shelter-in-place order.

Gyms and fitness centers, bowling alleys and close-contact businesses including barbershops and hair salons were allowed to reopen last Friday. Dine-in portions of restaurants and movie theaters got the go-ahead to reopen starting Monday.

The shelter-in-place order is due to expire this Thursday, unless Kemp extends it, except for the elderly and medically fragile, who must remain at home at least through May 13.

Georgia now has 49 COVID-19 testing sites, set up through the combined efforts of the state public health department, the University System of Georgia, local public health agencies and the private sector. The Georgia National Guard has opened another nine testing sites.

The 49 sites are listed on the Department of Public Health’s website at https://dph.georgia.gov/locations/covid-19-testing-site.

The National Guard sites are at the following locations:

  • Clayton State Parking Deck, 5893 North Drive, Morrow
  • Kennesaw State University Parking Deck, 525 Parliament Garden Way NW, Kennesaw
  • Colquitt Regional Medical Center, 3131 South Main St., Moultrie
  • Decatur Armory, 3136 Durham Park Road, Decatur
  • Albany Civic Center, 100 W. Oglethorpe Boulevard, Albany
  • Greenbriar Mall, 2841 Greenbriar Parkway SW, Atlanta
  • Georgia State University Blue Parking Lot, 521 Capitol Ave., Atlanta
  • M.E. Lewis Elementary School, 11145 Georgia Highway 15, Sparta
  • Rock Creek Sports Complex, 445 Martin Road, Dawsonville

Days and hours of operation at the National Guard sites vary.

COVID-19 ban on vacation rentals in Georgia set to end Friday

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

Vacation rentals in Georgia will be allowed to reopen Friday following weeks of coronavirus-prompted closures.

Gov. Brian Kemp gave the green light for bed-and-breakfast establishments and online bookings like Airbnb late Monday on the heels of allowing many other types of businesses to reopen in recent days, including dine-in restaurants, gyms, movie theaters and barbershops.

On Twitter Monday night, Kemp said his decision to let short-term rental businesses reopen was “based on favorable data and stakeholder input.” He said vacationers should still keep their distance from each other if they book a rental.

“We urge people to continue to follow social distancing and sanitation rules to prevent the spread of COVID-19,” the governor wrote.

Kemp and state health officials have touted models and reporting from local hospitals that indicate a slowdown in coronavirus cases and emergency-room visits, though positive cases and deaths traced to the highly infectious virus continue to mount in Georgia.

As of noon Tuesday, roughly 24,600 people had tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel strain of coronavirus that sparked a global pandemic. It had killed 1,025 Georgians.

Kemp has faced criticism since last week from public health experts and local elected officials for letting close-contact businesses like restaurants and barbershops reopen.

He has framed the move as a voluntary relief valve for struggling businesses, giving them the option to reopen if they want so that Georgia might avoid prolonged economic damage caused by the closures.

The temporary ban on vacation rentals started on April 9, almost a week after the prohibitions on other popular gathering spots took effect. The rental ban applied for stays of 30 days or less but did not include hotels, camping grounds and short-term rentals that were already booked before April 9.

Kemp acknowledged the rental ban was in part a response to concerns over public gatherings at beaches, which were allowed to remain open under the broader statewide shelter-in-place order that took effect April 3.

Facing complaints that he had usurped power from coastal officials who preferred keeping the beaches closed, Kemp pledged to take action if attendance grew too high and that beaches would be routinely monitored by state troopers and game wardens.

Since April 3, 551 warnings have been issued by the Department of Natural Resources for beach gatherings across the state, said Candice Broce, the governor’s communications director. No misdemeanor or felony citations have been issued during that time, she said.

Broce said Georgians have followed social distancing rules at beaches from the start or after being warned. Also, Kemp’s prohibition on bringing items to the beach like chairs and umbrellas “likely helped with preventing non-compliance from the outset,” she said.

“Officers have worked tirelessly to ensure people understand the parameters of the executive orders, and as you can see, any non-compliance has been readily rectified following verbal warnings,” Broce said in an email Tuesday.

Georgia schools lock in grant money for remote learning amid COVID-19

Nearly 200 public schools in Georgia are set to receive money for purchasing laptops and software aimed at boosting access to online courses as in-person classes remain suspended due to coronavirus.

On Tuesday, the state Board of Education voted unanimously to distribute roughly $21.5 million in federal grant funds among 55 local school districts that are seeking the money to buy Chromebooks, portable internet hotspots, remote-learning software and more.

The funding is slated for underserved schools in metro Atlanta and rural parts of the state that were struggling with internet access and a lack of electronic devices even before coronavirus prompted public schools to close for the remainder of the 2020 school year.

Georgia public schools stand to receive more than $450 million in emergency funding from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act (CARES), which can be used for a variety of purposes such as helping shore up a local school district’s budget.

Another roughly $105 million in federal emergency funding has been earmarked for Gov. Brian Kemp to give local schools and colleges for remote learning and other resources meant to maintain student studies while in-person classes are prohibited.

Around two million public school students in Georgia have been unable to attend traditional classes since mid-March, when Kemp ordered a statewide closure. Since then, teachers and students have shifted to online classes conducted via video streams and other remote means to finish up the year.

The online method has been hailed as a way for Georgia students to keep up their studies during the pandemic, but many schools are facing resource challenges that the move to remote learning has exacerbated, particularly in rural areas where broadband internet service is spotty.

The U.S. Department of Education recently estimated more than 13% of Georgia’s population does not have access to broadband, while nearly 27% of the state’s students live in rural areas.

The need among many underserved schools for better online connectivity and remote learning resources has been overwhelming at times, said Stephanie Johnson, deputy superintendent of school improvement for the Georgia Department of Education.

Speaking at a board meeting Tuesday, Johnson said difficulties have included a shortage of devices and learning software for students in many school districts, as well as internet access.

In some rural areas, school buses equipped with mobile hotspots have been parking near students’ homes to give them an internet connection they would not have had otherwise, Johnson said.

“We realized that sometimes it wasn’t just devices,” Johnson said Tuesday. “It was access to learning for teachers and students.”