COVINGTON — Newton County commissioners agreed during an emergency telephone meeting Monday night to issue a strongly worded declaration of emergency that would convey the urgent need for the public to voluntarily shelter in place and practice social distancing to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Commissioners initially said they expected to approve that emergency declaration at a special called meeting at noon Tuesday conducted via telephone; however, it became apparent on Tuesday that the meeting would likely not take place until Wednesday.

On Monday, commissioners discussed approving a declaration that mirrors one passed last week by the city of Covington. That declaration calls on residents to adhere to a voluntary curfew from 9 p.m. to 5 p.m., requests voluntary shelter in place and prohibits gatherings of 10 or more people. The city’s declaration also allows restaurants selling beer or wine for on-premise consumption to sell it for take out, and delays the due date for payment of alcohol excise taxes for restaurants until June 30.

On Monday Gov. Brian Kemp issued an executive order mandating the Georgia Department of Public Health to require vulnerable populations to stay in their homes for the next two weeks. Kemp also ordered bars and nightclubs in Georgia to close for the next two weeks. Gatherings of more than 10 people, when social distancing of at least 6 feet cannot be maintained at all times, will also be barred under the order. The order is effective until April 6.

District 3 Commissioner Nancy Schulz said Monday the county needs to send a clear, strong message about what is meant by voluntary stay at home, or shelter in place, and what is at stake.

“This morning (County Manager) Lloyd (Kerr) and I were on a call with Dr. (Carlos) del Rio who issued a dire warning that if we did not take a strong stance by (Tuesday), that we would be at a point of no return,” said Schulz.

Dr. del Rio is chair of Global Health at Emory University.

“Whereas I very much would like to agree that we need to enact some type of voluntary stay at home,” continued Schulz, “we need to be very clear that every business, every individual needs to remain at home for the next two weeks or there will be a substantial impact on our health care system from which we may not be able to recover.”

Commissioners also agreed that they would like to send a unified message with the city of Covington in the emergency declaration and would also like the participation of all other municipalities in the county, if possible.

Chairman Marcello Banes said that he and Kerr would conference call with Dr. Audrey Arona, district health director and CEO of Gwinnett, Newton and Rockdale County Health Departments, and with Covington Mayor Steve Horton for input on drafting a strongly worded declaration.

Commissioners briefly discussed a mandatory shelter in place order, but acknowledged that the county lacks the manpower to enforce such an order. Banes also said he would not want to supersede what the governor has enacted statewide.

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I have been editor of the Rockdale Citizen since 1996 and editor of the Newton Citizen since it began publication in 2004. I am also currently executive editor of the Clayton News Daily, Henry Daily Herald and Jackson Progress-Argus.

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