UPDATE 3/19/20: The mayor and commission has declared a 24-hour shelter in place order for all Athens residents.
The Athens-Clarke County Mayor and Commission declared a state of emergency due to the growing threat of COVID-19 (aka coronavirus) at a special called session tonight. They originally thought of imposing a mandatory curfew, but instead opted to ban gatherings of 10 or more people in bars, restaurants and entertainment establishments (not including employees) for the next three weeks, beginning tomorrow, March 17 at 5pm, and ending on April 7 at 5am. This ban on gatherings will also apply on all public property such as sidewalks and at all facilities owned by the ACC government, but there will not otherwise be a curfew.
This extraordinary step is targeted at restaurants and bars because many such establishments were packed in recent nights after UGA classes were cancelled. There is an extra concern about large gatherings in and outside bars due to Saint Patrick’s Day, which is coming tomorrow. The ordinance essentially forces the closure of all bars and restaurants for three weeks, with the exception of a very small number of patrons at any one time, or for takeout. It passed 7-2 with Commissioners Patrick Davenport and Ovita Thornton voting no, and Commissioner Allison Wright absent.
In addition to the ban on public gatherings of 10 or more people, the commission passed a voluntary “shelter in place” policy instead of a curfew. This request by the commission applies 24 hours a day but is not enforceable by the police. The voluntary policy passed 9-0.
The commission meets again tomorrow night (March 17), the day which this emergency measure goes into effect. It seems likely that more amendments will be suggested at that time after ACC Attorney Judd Drake has had time to do more research.
These measures come after the commission voted unanimously for a significant re-write of the ACC code section regarding states of emergency. This section was made much longer and more specific, detailing a number of additional powers for the Manager, Assistant Managers, or the Mayor if the Manager is not available. These powers are authorized in order to help “protect life and property or to bring the emergency situation under control.” For example, the Manager may now compel evacuations along certain prescribed routes or ban public gatherings, as is the case with this particular emergency.
The state of emergency may last until the Manager deems that emergency conditions no longer exist, or until the commission votes to end it. While the “shelter in place” policy and the ban on public gatherings are currently scheduled to last until April 7, they could be extended.
However, we should view this in perspective. There are currently only three confirmed cases of coronavirus in Athens. If these emergency measures are effective at promoting ‘social distancing,’ we should expect cases to peak and then start to decline within a few weeks to a few months. With patients receiving proper medical care, death rates are very low. The danger here is not so much the coronavirus itself, but the potential for an overburdened healthcare system if too many people are infected at once.
Stay calm, wash your hands and keep away from people.
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