TIFTON — Mayor Julie Smith recently joined other members of the Tifton City Council as well as representatives from the Tift County Board of Commissioners, Tifton Police Department and Tift County Sheriff’s Office in a series of social media videos urging residents to keep following requirements from Governor Brian Kemp’s office to help combat the spread of COVID-19.
Smith said they did the videos because, while most people are following the recommendations, there are some who are not.
“What’s scary and frustrating is that there’s 10 to 20 percent who just feel like either this isn’t as serious as it really is or they think they may, because they’re in a younger age bracket or they’re healthy, that they’re not susceptible to this,” she said. “So we still have folks in Tifton that are having street parties or backyard barbecues and birthday parties and things like that. Life does have to go on, but it’s scary to think they’re congregating. That’s the frustrating thing. Everything we’re being told says that social distancing, washing your hands, wearing a mask and staying home are the things that are going to work and that are going to flatten the curve.”
Smith said that she participates in multiple conference calls with other municipal leaders throughout the week with FEMA and GEMA and they are all being told that Georgia will not see the peak of virus infections until the end of April or the beginning of May.
“We’ve still got some time before we even peak,” she said.
She said that the other thing that is scary is that there are people who have tested positive for COVID-19 and are not practicing isolation.
“They’re not sick enough to be in the hospital or in bed, and they’re out and about,” she said. “That’s scary to me because you don’t know who they are. And you can go for a long time without symptoms.”
Smith said that while the Georgia State Patrol, Georgia National Guard and county sheriff’s deputies are the enforcement agencies according to the governor’s office, the city has decided that the Tifton Police Department will be involved in enforcing the order not to gather.
Officers have been told to start issuing citations if they are being called to the same place over and over.
“We want people to understand that we’re serious about this,” she said. “It’s a significant health risk. I know the weather is gorgeous and people want to get out and be together. It’s perfectly fine to get out and exercise or work in your yard or do those things, but you just can’t congregate or group up together.”
She recommends that if someone sees people gathering or a store not adhering to the requirements to be open to call the GSP office 229-386-3333 or 911.
“A lot of people have said that 911 should just be for emergencies,” she said. “In Tift County 911 is our dispatch, so they take emergency and non-emergency calls, so it is perfectly acceptable. This is what we’ve been instructed to do.”
Smith said it is also okay for people to contact her or their city council representative to report noncompliance.
“We’ll turn that over to our police department and let them make an assessment about what needs to be done,” she said.
Smith said that there have been a couple of parts of the governor’s orders that seem to be confusing a lot of people.
She said that the governor’s order supersedes the city’s ordinance.
“I have a lot of people ask about a curfew,” she said. “That’s what the city did before the governor came out with his executive order, which overrode the city ordinance. We had a curfew, but in the governor’s order it is 24/7. If you want to think of it as a curfew, it’s from 12 a.m. until 11:59 p.m. every day.”
She said that there has also been confusion about essential versus nonessential businesses.
“In the governor’s order he references essential businesses being those listed on the homeland security list, which is very specific,” she said. “But then he says nonessential businesses should close but then says if you need to be open these are the 20 things you need to do if you’re going to be open. So that was very confusing. It’s like, do we close, do we not close? In essence what he’s done is given the ability to each business owner to determine are they essential or not.”
She said that business owners can call the Georgia Department of Economic Development for guidance about if they are an essential business or not.
Smith asked nonessential business owners to close their businesses if at all possible. If nonessential businesses do feel the need to open, Smith said that they must abide by the requirements issues by the governor’s office.
“I know it’s a significant negative financial impact, but if you can close your business and stay home, that’s the preference,” she said. “My heart goes out to the people like the spas and the salons and the nail salons because just by the nature of what they do they can’t practice that social distancing. Hopefully maybe in the next couple of months we can begin to ease back into opening up more and more businesses.”
Smith said that while on the national level there is talk about winding down on social distancing, locally they have only just started having that conversation.
“We’ve asked the governor’s task force to work with local communities on how the reopening of the state is going to come about,” she said. “I think a gradual reopening of the state is the right thing to do, not just we’re closed one day and tomorrow everything is back open.”
She said that the concern is another wave of positive cases after reopening.
“We’re waiting to hear from the task force groups with the governor’s office on what they anticipate that will look like,” she said. “I think from a local standpoint, obviously we’re going to have to follow the governor’s orders, whatever those are, but we do want to ease into it as slowly and as methodically as we possibly can so that we can make sure that we’re not going to unleash another round.”
The good things
While there is a lot of negativity going around, Smith said that there are also many good things happening locally that deserve attention.
“It has been amazing the things that people are doing to help other people,” she said.
She highlighted all the people sewing cloth masks and gowns and delivering food for the hospital and other front line workers.
“The other day Harvey’s had a special shopping time for first responders and the medical profession,” she said. “Then as they checked out they were told that the groceries were taken care of. That’s huge.”