COVID-19 gathering restrictions in Georgia set to roll back on April 8

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

Gov. Brian Kemp is rolling back restrictions on public gatherings and a shelter-in-place order for elderly-care facility residents that have been in place since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Set to take effect on April 8, the rollback marks the broadest lifting of COVID-19 safety measures since the governor ended a statewide shelter-in-place order was in place for about three weeks last April.

Going forward, restaurants, bars and other popular social spots will no longer face limits on the number of patrons, according to one of several executive orders Kemp signed Wednesday. Capacities in public spaces have been kept at 50 people or fewer for many months.

The amount of space people will have to keep apart can also be reduced from 6 feet to at least 3 feet in movie theaters and 3.5 feet for restaurant and bar seating. Group fitness classes in gyms will have to keep exercisers at least 6 feet apart.

Shelter-in-place orders for residents in Georgia long-term care facilities, which have been in place since mid-March of 2020, will be lifted starting on April 8.

Kemp’s latest order also bars local police officers from shutting down businesses that refuse to comply with the new scaled-back distancing and sanitization rules.

Additionally, the order allows state government employees and public-school teachers to take up to 8 hours off of work without using vacation or sick time in order to receive COVID-19 vaccines.

Georgia’s public health emergency, which allows Kemp to continue issuing executive orders on COVID-19, will be extended through the end of April.

The upcoming restrictions rollback comes as Georgia makes headway in vaccinating the state’s nearly 11 million residents after opening up eligibility to everyone in the state 16 years of age and older on March 25.

Nearly 3.8 million vaccines have been administered in Georgia as of Wednesday afternoon, roughly 80% of the number of doses shipped by the federal government, according to state Department of Public Health data.

Georgians can pre-register for a vaccine appointment at even if they do not yet qualify under the governor’s eligibility criteria. They will be notified once they qualify and scheduled for an appointment.

State officials have opened nine mass vaccination sites in Atlanta, Macon, Albany, Savannah, Columbus, Waycross and Bartow, Washington and Habersham counties.

Kemp has long prioritized balancing COVID-19 restrictions with keeping businesses open in Georgia, touting the state’s improved economy amid the pandemic compared to many places elsewhere in the U.S. Critics have slammed him for not taking more drastic steps to curb the virus’ spread.

The governor has also faced backlash for not imposing a statewide mask mandate, as well as moving to block local governments like Atlanta and Savannah from adopting mask requirements earlier in the pandemic. President Joe Biden’s administration has urged state officials to impose mask mandates.

More than 852,000 people had tested positive for COVID-19 in Georgia as of Wednesday afternoon, with about 207,000 more reported positive antigen tests indicating likely positive results. The virus has killed 16,607 Georgians.

General Assembly repeals Georgia’s citizens arrest law

Rep. Bert Reeves, R-Marietta, speaks about his bill largely repealing citizen’s arrests in Georgia just before its final passage in the state House of Representatives on March 31, 2021. (Photo by Beau Evans)

ATLANTA – Legislation repealing Georgia’s 150-year-old citizen’s arrest law gained final passage in the General Assembly Wednesday.

On the final day of this year’s legislative session, the state House of Representatives unanimously passed a bill supported by Gov. Brian Kemp and legislative leaders as a follow-up to the hate-crimes law the General Assembly enacted last year.

The measure stems from the shooting death last year of Ahmaud Arbery, a Black jogger who was cornered near Brunswick by two white men in pickup trucks and shot dead. The defendants have cited the citizen’s arrest law in their defense.

Under the bill, owners of retail shops and restaurants would still be permitted to detain shoplifters on their premises.

It would also allow police officers who are off-duty or outside their jurisdiction to make arrests if they witness a crime or have knowledge a crime was recently committed.

Repealing citizen’s arrest would not affect the state’s stand-your-ground law, Georgia Rep. Bert Reeves, R-Marietta, told his House colleagues Wednesday.

“Everything we can do as a culture, society and General Assembly to educate our citizens on what is self-defense and what is not will make our communities safer,” he said.

Carl Gilliard, D-Garden City, who worked with Reeves on the bill, said citizen’s arrest in Georgia dates back to the Civil War. Georgia now has a chance to overcome that history, he said.

“Georgia would be the first state in the nation to repeal this law,” Gilliard said.

The legislation now goes to Kemp for his signature.

Way paved for college athletes to take home compensation in Georgia

College student athletes in Georgia would start receiving financial compensation under legislation that cleared the General Assembly late Wednesday.

The bill, sponsored by House Higher Education Committee Chairman Chuck Martin, R-Alpharetta, would allow Georgia athletes to earn compensation for the use of their “name, image or likeness” by the public, private or technical colleges they attend.

It aims to prepare Georgia for the legal impacts of a future when – either by choice or a judge’s order – the NCAA starts permitting student athletes to gain financial benefits for their talents and Congress potentially approves laws on athlete compensation.

It’s only a matter of time before college athletes will be allowed to reap profits from their skills, said Sen. Bill Cowsert, R-Athens, who carried the bill in the state Senate. Other states have already started preparing to gain a recruiting edge over Georgia schools by passing similar compensation laws, he said.

“This will be allowing players and amateur athletes to be compensated when somebody’s using their name for profit,” Cowsert said on the Senate floor.

Under the bill, college athletes in Georgia would be required to take five hours of a “financial literacy and life skills workshop” to ready them for the added burdens of receiving compensation for sports performance.

Student athletes would also have to deposit their earnings in an escrow account from which they could not withdraw funds until at least one year after they graduate or leave school.

Additionally, Martin’s bill bars schools from offering cash or other incentives to high-school recruits and would require sports agents seeking to represent college athletes to obtain the same type of license needed to represent professional athletes.

The Senate passed the bill by 50-2 Wednesday with Republican Sens. Steve Gooch of Dahlonega and Blake Tillery of Vidalia voting against it. It then cleared the state House of Representatives by a 43-8 vote with some Republican lawmakers voting against, and now heads to Gov. Brian Kemp’s desk for his signature.

The bill comes amid a flurry of lawsuits in recent years challenging the NCAA’s authority to block student athletes from receiving compensation while also profiting from their skills through advertising and video games.

Backers of allowing college-athlete compensation contend students are treated unfairly by institutions that gain from their playing abilities but often do not cover all of their costs to attend school, including textbooks and travel, even with full scholarships.

Opponents, including the NCAA, have argued paying or otherwise incentivizing college athletes would detract from their focus on school classes and other on-campus activities, as well as trampling on colleges’ authority to set their own rules when it comes to athlete compensation.

The U.S. Supreme Court is taking up a case soon from California brought by a former college athlete, West Virginia running back Shawne Alston, who sued the NCAA and several college leagues in 2014 for not allowing compensation to pay for costs beyond what his scholarship covered.

The NCAA appealed to the Supreme Court after Alston won in lower and appellate courts. The high court heard oral arguments in the case on Wednesday.

This story has been updated to reflect Rep. Martin’s bill gained final passage late Wednesday night.

Georgia college hazing incidents to be reported in passed General Assembly bill

A bill requiring Georgia colleges and universities to report hazing incidents that happen in school clubs like fraternities and sororities passed in the General Assembly Wednesday.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. John Albers, R-Roswell, is a greatly stripped-down version of the original measure, which would have made it a felony with prison time and large fines for anyone who injures or contributes to killing someone through hazing, including by alcohol abuse or physical torture.

Albers, who has pushed the criminal-hazing penalties since last year, said the state House of Representatives made “substantial changes” to his bill after it passed unanimously in the state Senate in late February.

He pledged to bring back the felony proposals in next year’s legislative session.

“This bill is a down payment on the further work we’re going to do next year and the years in the future to make sure we honor Max’s legacy and keep kids safe,” Albers said from the Senate floor Wednesday.

Albers referred in his floor remarks to Max Gruver, a Louisiana State University student from Georgia who died in 2017 from alcohol poisoning after being hazed by members of the Phi Delta Theta fraternity. The bill was named in honor of Gruver.

With the overhauled bill, Georgia college administrators will need to publicly disclose hazing incidents involving forced consumption of alcohol, food or otherwise harmful substances within 15 days after the school has adjudicated the matter or there has been a criminal conviction.

Schools would also have to name the organization where the hazing took place, which House lawmakers who revised Albers’ bill said recently should be enough to scare groups like fraternities, sororities and sports teams into clamping down on dangerous ritual hazing.

“They are not going to want to be on a list like this,” said Rep. Bert Reeves, R-Marietta, who helped draft the bill changes in the House Judiciary Non-Civil Committee last week.

“They know that would be detrimental and that this would be something that would be very damaging for fraternities. I think it does help achieve a really good public-policy goal in that.”

Rep. Ed Setzler, R-Acworth, who also had a hand in the changes, said the revised bill is “focused on the organizational deterrents versus crime and punishment.”

The bill passed in the Senate unanimously on Wednesday and now heads to Gov. Brian Kemp’s desk for his signature.

Gruver, a 2017 graduate from Blessed Trinity Catholic High School in Roswell, was forced to drink liquor for failing to correctly answer fraternity-related trivia questions. His death led to the arrests of several fraternity members and a felony negligent homicide conviction of the ringleader.

Rep. Mickey Stephens returns to Georgia House

Georgia Rep. Mickey Stephens

ATLANTA – Georgia Rep. Mickey Stephens, D-Savannah, returned to the chamber of the state House of Representatives Wednesday, more than two years after leaving due to an illness.

Stephens, 76, who was hospitalized for three months with blood clots in a leg he eventually lost to amputation, was accompanied by his wife of more than 50 years, Gloria, who spoke for him near the start of Wednesday’s House session.

“We have come here personally to thank you,” she told the lawmakers from the well of the House. “We are eternally grateful for the opportunity this morning to thank you for your immeasurable support, care and love throughout Mickey’s illness.”

Stephens, who has undergone four surgeries, greeted his colleagues from a wheelchair to a standing ovation.

Gloria Stephens particularly thanked her husband’s Capitol staff and House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, and his office for their support.

“This has been a life-changing experience,” she said.

While Stephens hasn’t been able to come to the Capitol since 2019, he won re-election last November without opposition in Savannah’s House District 165.

Stephens was first elected to the General Assembly in 2002 and served one term. He returned to office in 2014.