COVINGTON — The Covington City Council and Newton County Board of Commissioners voted unanimously in separate teleconference meetings Wednesday night to adopt an ordinance that mandates residents to shelter in place, prohibits public gatherings of any number and requires all non-essential businesses to cease all but minimum basic operations in response to the COVID-19 outbreak. The ordinance took effect at 12 a.m. on March 26 and will remain in effect until 11:59 p.m. on April 8.
Newton County had 15 confirmed cases of COVID-19 as of noon Friday.
The Covington Police Department and other departments of the city are authorized to seek individuals’ compliance with the order by providing information and instruction. Any businesses found in violation can be issued citations and taken to court once the COVID-19 pandemic is deemed over.
Newton County’s Board of Commissioners voted unanimously prior to the City Council’s meeting to adopt the city’s emergency ordinance, as well as to provide any additional funding the Newton County Sheriff’s Office may need to achieve enforcement of the ordinance.
Chairman Marcello Banes shared that he has been quarantined for more than a week with fever and pneumonia. He said he had been tested for COVID-19 but had not yet received the test results.
“This is a serious, serious, serious time we are dealing with,” said Banes. “I believe that we have to take the necessary steps to make sure our citizens not only feel safe, but are safe. I look forward to signing this resolution into law and making sure that all our citizens feel safe.”
At the council meeting, Mayor Steve Horton noted that the order is being issued because of the eight confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Newton County as of 7 p.m. on March 25, and because of a “significant and increasing number of suspected cases of community transmission and likely further significant increases in transmission.”
Horton also stated that after conferring with the chief of medicine at Piedmont Newton Hospital, that based on Georgia-specific numbers and infection rates, modeling done by Piedmont shows that if a mandatory shelter in place were not enacted by the end of the day on March 25, Piedmont Healthcare’s entire system would be at capacity with no beds available by Tuesday, April 7.
The joint order approved by the city and county requires the maximum number of people “self-isolate” in their places of residence to the maximum extent feasible, while enabling essential services to continue. The cities of Porterdale and Oxford approved similar ordinances Thursday night, although Oxford’s order extends to April 20. Oxford City Manager Matthew Pepper said City Council members felt that a deadline of April 8 might not be long enough and that the timeframe could be shortened if necessary.
Essential travel is exempt from the shelter in place mandate. Essential travel includes travel to an essential business, to care for another person, for a health care need, to obtain or deliver necessary services or supplies, to engage in outdoor activity, to work at an essential business or to perform minimum basis operations at a business closed to the public.
The order also prohibits all public and private gatherings of “any number of people” occurring outside a household or living unit. This differs from the previous order, which states public gatherings of 10 or more people were prohibited. Under the new order, a “gathering” can be 2 or more people if they are not following social distancing guidelines.
Public parks are closed. This does not include walking trails or sidewalks. Nothing prohibits individuals or families from using sidewalks or designated pedestrian walking areas within parks for walking or other exercise if they are not participating in an organized gathering.
All non-essential businesses must close. Closed businesses are still allowed to perform minimum basic operations but cannot be open to the public.
There are 22 categories of essential businesses. They include, for example, health care, grocery stores, pharmacies, stores that sell household consumer products, gas stations, auto repair, banks, hardware stores, household repair services, laundry service providers, restaurants (delivery or carry out only) and businesses that supply an essential business. All industrial manufacturers, delivery services, transportation services, home health, hotels/motels, childcare facilities and liquor stores are also considered essential. Closed businesses are still allowed to perform minimum basic operations but cannot be open to the public.
The complete ordinance is available for review on the city of Covington website — https://cityofcovington.org/ — and on the county website at https://www.co.newton.ga.us. Residents can pick up paper copies at City Hall.