ALBANY — With the number of COVID-19 cases continuing to rise — albeit at a much reduced number — the Albany City Commission is asking the community to continue following social distancing measures that have helped bend the curve downward.
On Friday, commissioners unanimously approved a resolution that encourages residents to continue to shelter in place.
The resolution states that before activity returns to normal there should be widespread testing, and contact tracing, available to slow the spread of the coronavirus in the city.
“It is in the best interests of the citizens of Albany to continue to shelter in place as set forth in Gov. Brian Kemp’s executive order of April 8, 2020,” the resolution concludes. “Not following the present shelter-in-place executive order could lead to overwhelming the city’s medical facilities.”
Despite Kemp’s subsequent relaxing of the order, originally issued to last through May 13, a number of ministers have announced their churches will not hold live services, and business owners have committed to not re-opening immediately.
Kemp’s latest order allowed businesses including tattoo parlors, barber shops, hair salons and gyms to reopen on Friday. On Monday, restaurants will be allowed to re-open. Cities and counties are prohibited from enacting measures more strict than those contained in the order.
Other governments, including Athens-Clarke County, DeKalb County and Savannah, have issued similar resolutions, Albany Mayor Bo Dorough said during a Friday telephone interview.
“I don’t think we ought to be opening up barber shops, restaurants right now,” the mayor said. “Things are moving in the right direction, but I don’t think we’re there yet.”
Communities that are hot spots for the disease should be given the flexibility to keep shelter-in-place orders in force until such time as they can safely be relaxed, Dorough said.
Presently, the number of residents who have tested positive makes it impossible to conduct contact tracing, he said. A city like Dublin, where there were 55 cases, can do that, but in a city where there are hundreds of individuals who have tested positive, it is not possible to track down every contact they have had over the past two weeks and notify those contacts to remain in isolation for a two-week period.
“At this point in time, you’ve got 1,500 people who have tested positive,” Dorough said. “You can’t contact trace in Dougherty County. I don’t think we’re going to be able to contact trace all the people we’ve got.”
Although Albany is the largest population center in the region, Dougherty County sits nearly in the center of a cluster of some 20 counties that have higher-than-average coronavirus cases for the state. Rural Early and Randolph counties have the highest per-capita rate of infection of the state’s 159 counties.
The ability to contact trace is one of the guidelines set forth for re-opening businesses by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dorough said. The others are the availability of an adequate supply of personal protection equipment and an adequate supply of tests.
“We need to meet those benchmarks,” he said. “That’s what the benchmarks are for.”
Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital had 90 patients hospitalized for treatment of COVID-19 on Saturday, said Ben Roberts, director of communications for the Phoebe Putney Health System. Of those, 36 were undergoing the most critical level of care on ventilators.
The number of cases at the hospital peaked at 155 on April 9, he said.
The city’s resolution requests that residents continue to shelter in place and only leave home for essential purposes, including work, to purchase food and for medical appointments. It also encourages residents to follow social distancing guidelines, such as maintaining a 6-foot distance from others and wearing masks.
“Basically, the resolution came about because I felt like we as a community need to go on record, just basically in opposition to the governor in his decision-making in re-opening the community,” Ward VI City Commissioner Demetrius Young said. “Everybody feels, especially in Albany, that we are not ready to be back open.
“(Kemp is) not giving leadership the chance to make decisions based on what our situation is. We understand we are not ready.”
Young’s ward in south Albany is the hardest hit in the city, and he said he has had one relative who has died from the disease and three who have been sickened and recovered. He said he also knows a number of constituents who have battled the disease.
“In my estimation, you really have to consider the sacrifices — what people have lost here,” Young said. “All we know is the data from the federal guidelines have not been reached in a lot of places in Georgia. Sacrifices have been made by our heroes in the medical community, and we must see this through to make this community safe. Right now, our community is not safe.”
Currently, testing and contact tracing are inadequate, the commissioner said.
“In my ward, I would say a lot of them don’t have the wherewithal to have the PPE, to have the masks and face guards and gloves for every customer who walks in,” he said. “Then there’s air-conditioning and ventilation. It’s just a lot to be opening up Friday and then sit-down restaurants on Monday. It just doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.”
Dorough said that Albany police, along with Dougherty County police and the Dougherty County Sheriff’s Office, will be checking businesses that do re-open to ensure they are in compliance. That is not a punitive measure, he said, but one meant to make sure they are operating as safely as possible.
The mayor said he understands the sacrifices being made and that some businesses are in jeopardy of closing their doors for good due to economic hardship.
Dougherty County Republican Party Chairman Tracy Taylor said that he disagrees with Dorough’s appearances on national news programs, during which he has criticized the governor.
“For our mayor to go on several news outlets and oppose our governor is irresponsible,” said Taylor, who also is the sole Republican candidate for the District 12 Georgia Senate seat. “I think this will ultimately affect the resources that are coming into our community.”
Kemp has responded by sending some 260 medical personnel, including doctors, physician’s assistants and nurses, to assist Phoebe and at the hard-hit PruittHealth-Palmyra nursing home, Taylor said.
“The governor has taken measured steps to allow the re-opening of businesses,” Taylor said.