Coronavirus

Lawmakers Confirm Georgia’s First-Ever State of Public Health Emergency

Rep. Calvin Smyre is among the lawmakers getting their temperatures taken at the state capitol Monday, as the General Assembly convened briefly to ratify the Governor's request to enter a state of public health emergency.
Rep. Calvin Smyre is among the lawmakers getting their temperatures taken at the state capitol Monday, as the General Assembly convened briefly to ratify the Governor's request to enter a state of public health emergency.
Credit Emma Hurt / WABE

In an unprecedented day in Georgia history, both chambers of the General Assembly have nearly unanimously confirmed Gov. Brian Kemp’s request to enter into a state of public health emergency.

The declaration, effective immediately, gives Kemp broad powers to free up more resources to fight the pandemic, including compelling health care facilities to provide services, enforcing evacuations and mandating quarantine and vaccination through April. At that time, Kemp would have to renew the state of emergency, and the General Assembly would ratify the renewal through another special session. If they cannot convene for whatever reason, Kemp will be able to renew it unilaterally.

The chambers were delayed for hours as they debated this point: whether to reconvene if a renewal is needed or to allow the governor to renew unilaterally.

“This is one of those situations where half the population is out there going, ‘Are they overreacting?’ And half are going, ‘Are they doing enough?'” said state Sen. Mike Dugan, the Senate Majority Leader. “And unfortunately the only way to know if we’re overreacting is to not do anything. And then see where the disease takes us.

“Is it important? Yes. Is it critical? Yes. Is it dire? Not if we pass this and get in front of it.”

Kemp called the legislature back in for a special session with one agenda item, because, by law, the General Assembly needs to approve the state of public health emergency. Late last week, the legislature had announced it would suspend indefinitely. After this one-day session, that suspension persists.

“I’ve seen a lot of things happen here in my 46 years, but nothing to this level,” said Democratic Rep. Calvin Smyre, the longest-serving member of the Statehouse.

“What I think we have to do now as a state, as a legislature is be very prudent in our actions, give the governor the necessary authority that he has requested of us.”

Smyre said the state must speak “as one voice” in this moment. He touched on this as he led the prayers in the house:

“Grant us the vision to see that on this day, there is only one aisle. The health and well-being of the citizens of the great state of Georgia, this great nation called the United States of America, and yes, the world in which we all reside,” he said.

“The challenges we face are many, but as we take this step today, I hope we will do so with a resolve that we will do what we must to protect the safety, health and well-being of the people of Georgia because there is no higher obligation that we have in these public positions,” said Republican House Speaker David Ralston.

Democratic state Sen. Freddie Powell Sims said in her Southwest Georgia district, the message about the risks of the virus is getting out. People are staying out of restaurants and off the streets, and she said she has confidence in the health care system.

“There are always going to be concerns when something as unprecedented as this occurs. But we’re ready, and we’re prepared. And we’re working around the clock,” she said. “It’s all hands on deck. And we’re working together.”

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