COVID-19 cases up 45% in one week


Chick-Fil-A closed by COVID, mask policies put in place 

  • Wayne Knuckles/The Clayton Tribune. "I always wear a mask," said Keith Knudson as he prepared to shop at the Clayton Walmart Tuesday.
    Wayne Knuckles/The Clayton Tribune. "I always wear a mask," said Keith Knudson as he prepared to shop at the Clayton Walmart Tuesday.

CLAYTON—Confirmed cases of COVID-19 rose by 45 percent in Rabun County in the past week.

It marked the single biggest weekly increase since the Georgia Dept. of Public Health began reporting statistics in March.

Rabun County had 39 new COVID-19 cases July 15-22, according to GDPH, bringing the cumulative total to 125.

The week also saw several national chain stores in Rabun County affected by COVID-19.

The Chick-fil-A restaurant in Clayton was closed Tuesday after some staff members tested positive, a company spokesperson confirmed.

It was unclear at press time when the store, which had been doing carry-out service only, would reopen.

“Our highest priority is the health and well-being of our team members and guests,” a statement furnished to The Clayton Tribune by Chick-fil-A, Inc. said. “After learning that team members at Chick-fil-A Clayton were diagnosed with COVID-19, the restaurant proactively closed and took precautionary measures, including disinfecting and deep cleaning the restaurant. Safe service is our top priority and our restaurants continue to follow CDC and local health department guidelines.”

Meanwhile, Walmart, Ingles and The Home Depot began requiring all customers to wear a mask before entering their stores.

“Everyone is cooperating, we haven’t had any problems,” said Walmart associate Jackie Shirley as she tallied the number of customers entering the store Tuesday morning. “Everyone is coming together.”

Many shoppers were willingly wearing masks.

“I always wear a mask,” Keith Knudson said as he prepared to enter the store. “I wouldn’t want to go anywhere near other people who don’t.”

Others were complying with the requirement, but had mixed feelings.

“I will honor a business,” said Billy Johnson. “If it’s a government regulation, I have a problem with it. But I will honor a private business policy. I do not prefer wearing a mask. It’s uncomfortable, and I hope I’m not going to be near anybody spreading germs. I grew up just dealing with what we had to deal with. My intentions are not to make people feel uncomfortable.”

Eileen McClay of Atlanta, who is visiting friends in Clayton, was seen sporting a mask as she walked her dogs on Main Street Tuesday morning.

“I think (masks) are very important, not only to protect yourself, but to protect other people," McClay said.

So far in Rabun County, three deaths and 22 hospitalizations have been attributed to COVID-19 by GDPH.

The number of confirmed cases for surrounding counties as of Tuesday were:

-Towns County 84

-Habersham County 876

-Stephens County 412

-Macon County (N.C.) 382

-Oconee County (S.C.) 570

Last week, the Clayton City Council agreed to require face masks for all employees and visitors inside city buildings,

But just over 24 hours later, Gov. Brian Kemp invalidated the requirement by declaring local governments cannot enact policies more restrictive than those adopted by the state of Georgia.

Clayton will still require employees to wear masks inside their buildings, and is encouraging visitors to do the same.

Kemp renewed orders last Wednesday to keep Georgia’s current social distancing and safety rules imposed through the end of July to discourage the spread of coronavirus in place for businesses, schools and public gatherings.

The latest executive order also contains new language requiring that any masking mandates put in place by city or county governments that go beyond the state’s voluntary measures “are suspended.”

That move could set up a legal battle between Kemp and local officials in Atlanta, Savannah, Athens and several other communities in Georgia where mask requirements were recently imposed.

The governor’s order arrived hours before a slate of COVID-19 restrictions were set to expire at Wednesday’s end. Kemp has executive authority to issue emergency orders through at least Aug. 11.

As of Wednesday afternoon, nearly 128,000 people in Georgia had tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel strain of coronavirus that sparked a global pandemic. It had killed 3,091 Georgians.

While a host of Georgia businesses have been allowed to reopen since May, they are still required by the governor’s orders to abide by several measures to keep people separated from each other, maintain clean surfaces and send workers home if they show symptoms of coronavirus.

A shelter-in-place order has been in effect since late March for Georgians in long-term care facilities and those with chronic medical conditions including lung disease, moderate to severe asthma, severe heart disease, compromised immune systems, severe obesity and diabetes.

In particular, large gatherings in Georgia have been limited to no more than 50 people if they cannot keep at least six feet apart. That applies to restaurants, bars and other popular gathering spots.

Conventions, sports stadiums and performance venues were allowed to reopen July 1 under distancing, sanitizing and signage rules. But Kemp has suggested he could pull the plug on fall sports like football if people disregard wearing masks.

Kemp’s new order says any city or county rules “requiring persons to wear face coverings, masks, face shields” or other kinds of protective equipment in public “are suspended to the extent that they are more restrictive than” the state’s guidelines.

Asked whether the new language is aimed specifically at preventing local governments from imposing mask mandates, Kemp’s office reiterated the governor’s previous position on the matter.

“We’ve been clear in previous orders and statements that local mask mandates are unenforceable,” said Candice Broce, Kemp’s communications director. “The Governor has encouraged Georgians to wear them voluntarily for months now.”

Mask-wearing in Georgia has been a testy subject in recent weeks. Kemp remains under pressure to impose mandatory masking requirements as positive COVID-19 cases continue rising in the state, and several cities have ordered residents to wear facial coverings in public.

The governor’s latest order came shortly after Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey placed her state under a mask mandate through July. Several other states have also required masking.

Kemp’s statewide rules for Georgia so far have “strongly encouraged” voluntary mask-wearing even as many health experts and local elected officials have urged him to take a mandatory approach or at least let counties and cities set their own masking rules.

To date, Kemp’s orders on COVID-19 have required city and county governments to adopt the state’s rules rather than impose their own.

Last week, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms issued a citywide masking requirement that argued the governor’s statewide orders do not explicitly address mask mandates, posing a legal loophole for local governments to adopt their own measures.

Kemp’s office has dismissed the Atlanta mask mandate as unenforceable.

Savannah Mayor Van Johnson pressed Kemp again Wednesday to grant local governments leeway to require public masking. He said in a news conference the city’s mask mandate has prompted residents and visitors alike to wear masks amid the summer season.

“It’s been very clear more people are wearing masks,” Johnson said. “I think sometimes people need a rule.”

Capitol News Service, a non-profit service of the Georgia Press Association, contributed to this story.