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CDC advises halting gatherings of 50 or more to stop coronavirus, but what will Decatur do?

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CDC advises halting gatherings of 50 or more to stop coronavirus, but what will Decatur do?

Decatur City Hall.
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Decatur, GA – As the latest news about coronavirus increases the pressure on local officials to act to prohibit public gatherings, it is not yet clear what the city of Decatur will do.

The Decatur City Commission meets on Monday, March 16. While the meeting still is technically open to the public, the city is encouraging people to view it via live stream. The live stream can be viewed by clicking here.

There are currently 99 cases of COVID-19 reported in Georgia and 10 reported in DeKalb County, though the number is likely far higher due to limited testing.

On Sunday evening, March 15, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms declared a state of emergency in Atlanta and prohibited large public gatherings of more than 250 people. But the coronavirus news moves faster than the government. A short time later, the Centers for Disease Control recommended halting public gatherings of 50 people or more.

Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said bars and restaurants “could be” ordered to close, according to the Washington Post.

He stopped short of calling for restaurants to close, but Ohio and Illinois have already done so.

Georgia has not. And while it’s not clear where the authority for closing bars and restaurants lies, the city of Decatur’s code apparently does grant city leaders emergency powers to do so.

It’s not an easy call. Restaurant owners in Decatur said closing their businesses for an indefinite period could have catastrophic consequences that would ripple through the local economy. Local businesses were still open as of Sunday evening, March 15.

But Decatur City Manager Andrea Arnold said closing bars and restaurants is a call that should be coordinated with other agencies.

“The [DeKalb] County Department of Public Health (DPH) has the authority to close businesses at the county level for a public health emergency,” Arnold said. “Ideally, such a decision would be made and coordinated at the state level in order to avoid a patchwork of local government restrictions. … In extreme circumstances, the City Commission may have the authority to close non-essential businesses for a temporary period. Such extreme measures by the city are not justified at this time according to the guidance provided by State and County health officials. Instead, residents and businesses in Decatur are being asked to voluntarily follow the guidance of the CDC and DPH including social distancing and responsible hygiene.  Be assured that we are closely monitoring the situation and evaluating options to protect the health, safety, security and welfare of the city and its residents.”

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Arnold’s statement further confuses the issue of who has the authority to shut down these businesses. On March 14, Mayor Patti Garrett said she wasn’t sure the city had the ability to close private businesses and said that would need to happen at the state or federal level.

Eric Nickens with the DeKalb County Board of Health said he wasn’t sure who would give the order.

“For example, most food service establishments fall under the Georgia Department of Public Health’s Environmental Health division,” he said on March 14. “Grocery stores would fall under the Georgia Department of Agriculture. There would be a tremendous amount of discussion between the governor’s office, state departments, state health officials and the business community before any decision of that magnitude is made.”

When asked for a response to Arnold’s comment that the county Health Department can close restaurants for public health emergencies, Nickens said “there are differing thoughts at the state level to the scope of authority of the district health director,” and referred all other questions to Nancy Nydam at DPH Communications.

Nydam said she would reach out to the Health Department’s attorney on Monday morning, March 16, and provide an answer as soon as possible.

Here’s what the city of Decatur’s code has to say about the city’s emergency powers:

Sec. 30-35. – Powers during an emergency or disaster.

In the event of a manmade or natural disaster, actual enemy attack upon the United States, or any other emergency which may affect the lives and property of citizens of the city, the mayor of the city, separately, or jointly with the CEO, county commission or in their absences, their legally appointed successors, may determine that an emergency or disaster exists and thereafter shall have and may exercise for such period as such emergency or disaster exists or continues, the following powers:

(1) Enforce all rules, laws, and regulations relating to emergency management and to assume direct operational control over all emergency management resources;

(2) Seize or take for temporary use, any private property for the protection of the public;

(3) Sell, lend, give or distribute all or any such property or supplies among the inhabitants of the county and to maintain a strict accounting of property or supplies distributed and for funds received for such property or supplies; and

(4) Perform and exercise such other functions and duties, and take such emergency actions as may be necessary to promote and secure the safety, protection and well-being of the inhabitants of the county.

The agenda for the City Commission’s March 16 meeting is a short one. It includes a proclamation for Alcohol Awareness Month, an alcoholic beverage license for the new owner of the Pinewood restaurant, and a recommendation approve of a $73,000 contract for Ross and Associates for an impact fee study.

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