Editorial: Gov. Kemp, it’s time to be the bad guy
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Being an elected official during a pandemic is about the shortest straw any politician could draw.
Every decision you make will be difficult and require a compromise. Should you close businesses to stop the spread of the virus? If so, which ones do you close and for how long? Will you be there to help businesses and their employees pick up the pieces when this is over? If so, what help will you offer? What can you do? No one will come out of this unscathed. Everyone will be asked to make some sacrifices. Many of us already have.
But in Georgia, the decisions about who must make these sacrifices are for the most part being left up to local leaders. People like Decatur Mayor Patti Garrett, Tucker Mayor Frank Auman and Avondale Estates Mayor Jonathan Elmore must decide what stays open and what closes. And the decisions have varied from municipality to municipality.
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It shouldn’t be left up to them. This is a decision the governor should make. Gov. Brian Kemp has hesitated on taking the unprecedented and bold step of ordering the closure of all non-essential businesses.
He shouldn’t take all the blame for that. Ultimately the President of the United States should be the leader we need during this crisis. But like Gov. Kemp and other governors following a similar strategy, President Trump has passed the buck on these decisions. The president has passed the buck to the country’s governors. Some of them, like Gov. Kemp, have passed the buck to local leaders.
It should be apparent to anyone watching this situation objectively that President Trump isn’t going to be the kind of leader this crisis requires. Instead of uniting the nation behind an unprecedented effort to stamp out this pandemic, the president has fallen into his usual habits of making everything about him, lying about everything and airing his petty grievances. We can’t count on him to make the hard choices that need to be made. President Trump wants someone else to be the bad guy.
And that means the decisions fall to people like Gov. Kemp. I don’t envy him. I should note that, overall, I have been satisfied with Gov. Kemp’s response. He’s listened to the experts and hasn’t dismissed this virus as hype or fake news. His actions to date have saved lives. He should be commended for that alone.
Unfortunately, it’s just not enough.
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Gov. Kemp has closed all public schools but hasn’t taken the difficult but ultimately necessary step of closing all non-essential businesses and cracking down on public gatherings. Right now, the only things that should be open are hospitals, pharmacies, gas stations and grocery stores. Restaurants should be open for takeout and delivery only. Grocery stores should be limited to no more than 10 customers at a time and there needs to be mandatory rationing to stop the hoarding. Gas stations should also be ordered to shut down their back-room bingo machines.
When asked about the possibility of a statewide shutdown of non-essential businesses like the shutdowns ordered in New York, California and Illinois, Gov. Kemp said, “We can’t just shut things down.” But we can. More specifically, you can, governor.
I say this knowing full and well the economic costs of such a decision. As a small business owner, I depend on the support of other small businesses advertising with us. Their support allows me to provide free local news. I’m currently experiencing what economists refer to as losing one’s ass. Nobody with a small business wants to spend lots of money on an ad, and I can’t hold that against them. My experience is not unique. In some ways, I’m better poised to weather this crisis than others. I don’t have a storefront to close. I, fortunately, have hundreds of people who are supporting us every month so we can keep going.
I’m lucky. Many of my fellow business owners are not so lucky.
When this pandemic has passed, the federal and state governments will need to be there to help us put everything back together. Gov. Kemp already has taken steps to mitigate the damage by getting an official statewide disaster declaration from the U.S. Small Business Administration, making businesses eligible for economic injury disaster loans. That application is available now at www.disasterloan.sba.gov.
“While terms will be established on a case-by-case basis, many will have a thirty-year repayment term with first payments not due for up to twelve months. Businesses should expect to provide a tax transcript, financial statements, and a profit and loss statement,” the Governor’s Office said. “Interest rates will range from 2.75% to 3.75%.”
The Georgia Department of Labor has adopted an emergency Rule 300-2-4-0.5, according to my tax preparer and friend Wes Hargrave. All Georgia employers will have to file partial claims online on behalf of their employees for any week an employee works less than full time because of a partial or total shutdown caused by the pandemic. This should get employees their benefits faster, within 48 hours of the claims being filed electronically. These employees will not be required to go to a DOL career center, register for employment services or look for other work. For instructions on how to file partial claims, click here.
These are decent first steps, but they are not nearly aggressive enough. There needs to be a moratorium on evictions for renters and foreclosures for homeowners. The United States has ordered a year-long break on mortgages backed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. People with these loans could be eligible to have their payments reduced or halted for up to a year, “depending on their situation,” according to NPR. That’ll cover about half the mortgages in this country, NPR reports. “But regulators expect that the entire mortgage industry will quickly adopt a similar policy,” NPR adds.
Once again, the buck gets passed and private companies are asked to police themselves. The economic ramifications of this will take time to get sorted out. While it’s important, that conversation can wait a week or two.
Right now, it’s time for Gov. Kemp to stop outsourcing decisions about a full-scale shutdown. It’s time for him to stop leaving those decisions to local elected officials.
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Locally, we already are seeing how Gov. Kemp’s misguided strategy plays out. Asking the cities to deal with it leads to uneven responses. Decatur was behind other cities in asking restaurants to close their dining rooms, trying at first to encourage restaurants to prioritize to-go orders and takeout orders. But soon Decatur joined Brookhaven, Clarkston and Dunwoody and Atlanta in ordering a closure.
Prior to ordering closures, the Decatur City Commission sent a letter to restaurants that contained a subtle critique of Gov. Kemp.
“At this time, Governor Kemp has left decisions in the hands of local governments as he initially did with school closures,” the city commission’s letter says. “As we all know, recommendations are fluid and dynamic so there might be additional restrictions to come at the state level – we just don’t know at this time. In addition, there may need to be action at the local or regional level by executive decision.”
Gov. Kemp’s approach has allowed different cities to handle things in their own way.
While Decatur still allows attendance at City Commission meetings but encourages people to view it via live stream, Avondale Estates has prohibited the public from attending its meetings and is holding them via teleconference, which the public can attend with an access code. Tucker has forged its own path, implementing a curfew at 9 p.m. but not asking restaurants to close their dining rooms. Tucker is moving forward with its City Council meeting on Monday but at this time hasn’t provided members of the public a way to view the meetings online or listen to them via teleconference. Decaturish will not be covering the meeting unless we can listen to it remotely. We take the social distancing guidelines seriously.
But that’s the problem. We take social distancing seriously. Others do not.
Case in point: David Pennington, the Mayor of Dalton, Ga. has called the restaurant closures “hysteria” and said he was disappointed that more people weren’t eating at restaurants.
The mayor told the Daily Citizen-News, “I don’t deny that vulnerable people need to self-quarantine — the elderly, people with health conditions. But the rest of us don’t.”
Unfortunately, we can’t count on goobers like Mayor Pennington to understand how virus transmission works. For many of us in Georgia, our mileage with local elected officials may vary.
Gov. Kemp is not a goober, even if he plays one in his campaign commercials. To date, the odds of the governor pulling the trigger on someone trying to date one of his daughters are better than the odds of him pulling the trigger on ordering non-essential businesses to close.
But that day is coming. As coronavirus cases continue to rise in Georgia, overwhelm our local hospitals and kill our citizens, the decision to close these non-essential businesses will be unavoidable. Waiting only exacerbates the problem.
Why wait? It’s time to shut it down. People need to be ordered to stay in their homes unless they’re going for a walk in their neighborhood, a hike in the woods or going to an essential business. No more house parties. No more trips to crowded gyms. No more standing shoulder to shoulder on the Beltline or at bars. Anyone violating that order should be subject to fines and arrest.
Same for anyone caught hoarding goods. Grocery stores should be ordered to pack boxes of essentials that we’re all buying anyway: pasta, rice, toilet paper, hand sanitizers and soap. No more than two items per box, no more than one box per family every two weeks. The grocery stores can have people register for their boxes online. It’ll take some coordination, but that’s better than the panic buying and hoarding that’s leaving the rest of us eating Twinkies for breakfast.
These are serious steps, but this is a serious situation. The reason there are so many pissed off people venting online is that half of us are taking this seriously and the rest of us are going full YOLO. Well, you may only live once, but your personal freedom is not more important than the life of your neighbors.
We know how this virus is transmitted. We know social distancing stops the spread. So why isn’t the state taking steps to make sure we’re doing what needs to be done?
Gov. Kemp, the buck stops with you on this one. Please do what needs to be done. Please be the bad guy.
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