Rabun County braces for COVID-19

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On-premises dining banned but takeout food still okay, officials continue to prepare

  • Megan Broome/The Clayton Tribune. Fortify Pi, a restaurant located on Main Street in Clayton, has this sign posted on their window Wednesday afternoon.The Clayton council proclaimed that businesses operating inside the city should limit the number of people in their establishments at any one time to one person per 100 square-feet of floor space, not including store employees.
    Megan Broome/The Clayton Tribune. Fortify Pi, a restaurant located on Main Street in Clayton, has this sign posted on their window Wednesday afternoon.The Clayton council proclaimed that businesses operating inside the city should limit the number of people in their establishments at any one time to one person per 100 square-feet of floor space, not including store employees.
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CLAYTON—Rabun County had no confirmed cases of COVID-19 as of press time Wednesday, but the community has seen a flurry of activity in recent days related to the virus as local officials continue to fine tune plans for a public-health emergency.

Statewide, the Georgia Department of Health reported 1,026 confirmed cases of COVID-19 as of Wednesday morning, along with 32 deaths attributed to the virus.

The governing bodies of Clayton, Dillard and Rabun County passed emergency resolutions this week to temporarily ban on-premises dining at restaurants and other food establishments, at least through the end of the month.

In many cases, local restaurants had already closed their in-house dining areas to the public.

Many Rabun County restaurants continue to offer drive-thru and curbside food service, and are free to continue under the new restrictions. 

Meanwhile, at an emergency meeting of the Clayton City Council Monday morning, officials said the county has seen an influx of second-home owners and others over the past week that has swelled Rabun County’s population significantly.

They said they are requesting additional resources from the state of Georgia, due to the increased numbers of people now sheltering here.

Local hotels were reported at or near capacity Monday morning.

The Clayton council also proclaimed that businesses operating inside the city should limit the number of people in their establishments at any one time to one person per 100 square-feet of floor space, not including store employees.

This is a constantly evolving story, and the latest information can be found at www.theclaytontribune.com, which is being updated constantly. The Clayton Tribune is making all of its news coverage concerning the COVID-19 health emergency free to read online. Please check the website for the latest news.

Here’s a look at this week’s developments:

Clayton

The Clayton City Council voted unanimously Monday to ban on-premises restaurant dining, but allow drive-thru and curbside service in the city limits to continue for those restaurants who want to make it available.

A limited  amount of beer and wine can be sold with take-out orders, as long as it is served in sealed containers. The amount of alcohol served with to-go orders is limited to either 36 ounces of beer or one bottle of wine per entrée for restaurants that already serve alcohol.

Council member Michelle Duquette voted against allowing alcohol sales during this time, while council members Woody Blalock, Ara Joyce, David Cross and John Bradshaw voted in favor.

Joyce was not present at the meeting due to a family health emergency, but participated via speaker phone.

The emergency order became effective as of Wednesday morning and will be reevaluated in one week. 

Michael Mazarky, director of Emergency Management for Rabun County, said that one concern is that the population of Rabun County has approximately tripled over the last two weeks, with residents coming to their second homes from more concentrated areas like Atlanta or states like North Carolina and Florida.  

“[The] population has increased a lot, which increases our risk,” Mazarky said.

Mike Carnes, E911 director for the county, said that 911 and EMS are locked down and additional precautions are being taken when treating patients.

 Discussion about course of action

One argument shared by several business owners in attendance was that all businesses types, whether restaurant or retail, should be treated equally with how they are allowed to function during the COVID-19 health emergency.

“This is not something we have come lightly to,” Mayor Jordan Green said about the new regulations on restaurants and retail stores. “We would rather (citizens) go home when your essential business in the city is complete.”

Green stressed the importance of practicing social distancing.

“The longer we don’t understand what social distancing is, the longer it will go on,” Green said.

Cross said that there is a misconception among people coming into the city that the rural landscape will protect them from COVID-19.

“They think just because we have mountain air that they won’t get it,” Cross said.

City attorney Mitch Baker said that he felt it would be best and recommended for Clayton to declare a state of emergency.

“I think it is telling that the government has issued one (state of emergency),” Baker said.

Council member John Bradshaw said that he felt declaring a “state of emergency” would frighten the general public.

“This is not about scaring people,” Green said.  

Bradshaw said that he wanted to make sure the reason for the on-premises dining ban is clearly explained.

Council member Michelle Duquette said that the city does not want to close any business down, “but the last thing we need is for someone to get sick and it runs rampant.”

“The more we do to protect ourselves, the better off,” Duquette said.

 Business owners debate

Eagle Cleaning Services had two employees present at the meeting. They argued that the government should try to make sure it won’t create more problems when they mandate businesses close or limit customers.

“Let’s make sure we’re not killing our local businesses if it’s not necessary,” Larry Cavender said. 

“The government mandating that businesses close should not happen,” he said, noting that most restaurants had already closed their dine-in facilities voluntarily.

He added he understands that council members have tough decisions to make, and no matter what they choose to do, someone will be unhappy.  

Council member Woody Blalock said that he made the voluntary decision to close on-premises dining at his own business, Tiger Food Mart, temporarily.

City Manager Cissy Henry noted “there are a lot of scared people out there.”

James Reece, environmental health manager at the Rabun County Health Department, said that the main concern with restaurants isn’t the customers, but rather monitoring employees.

Green said that it’s come to the point of mandating regulations because people are still not practicing social distancing.

“The population does not understand what we mean when we say social distancing,” Green said.

An audience member asked why restaurants were being forced to close their dining areas and are being pushed more than retail stores.

Green said that restaurants are a draw to the community, and that people linger and socialize in restaurants longer than they do in stores.

“With the influx of population that we’ve had, unfortunately, restaurants are where we have to start,” Green said.

“This is not about punishing any business owner,” he added. He said that having dining rooms open gives people a false sense that they can go and linger longer without any risk.

Duquette said that she does not want to wait until the health threat becomes worse to implement a plan.

Mike and Chris McKissack, owners of Sunday Diner, were present at the meeting.

Mike McKissack asked council members how they can justify mandating restaurants close their indoor dining area while there is no mandate from the government to do so.

“What we’re trying to do is avoid future mandates,” Green pointed out. He said that the decision has been left to local governments by state and federal officials.

Chris McKissack said a lot of businesses were self-regulating by going to drive-thru and carryout service already.

“You are just mandating what we are already doing now,” she said.

Green reiterated that the problem is that recommendations have already been given, but the populace has not followed them.

 “But this has come the time and place where we have to do something to get on the right track,” Green said.

 Working together

 Baker said that it’s important to work with the county on setting these mandates, as well as having regional coordination whenever possible in order to stop the spread of COVID-19.

“Regionally, there needs to be coordination,” Baker said. “You are going to have an influx of people where regulations are the most relaxed.”

He said that everyone needs to work together so the problem is not pushed onto someone else.

 “The bad thing I see is it’s going to get worse before it gets better,” Cross said towards the end of the meeting. He said that it’s important for the public to have “education, education, education.”

County Commissioner Kent Woerner attended the meeting. He closed his business, Clayton Health and Fitness, temporarily in the midst of COVID-19 precautions.

“I closed my gym just because I felt like it was the right thing to do,” Woerner said. He said that what concerns him is the number of people coming in from out of town and bringing campers.

“I think what we’re trying to do is be proactive, that way we won’t have to be reactive,” council member Ara Joyce said. “I want to follow the mandates.”

Green said that he ultimately wants people to understand that it is safer to be at home.

 “It’s best to take these steps now to try to get people to socially distance and flatten the curve,” Green said.  

The council is set to meet again on Friday.

Council members voted to limit in-person attendance to council members, along with other local officials and representatives of the news media.

Green said the decision was made with public health in mind. The meeting will be live-streamed online so the public can observe the proceeding.

Attorney David Hudson, a recognized authority on Georgia’s open meetings law, told The Clayton Tribune, that he believes such a meeting is legal, as long as it is done in the name of a health emergency and the public has a way to observe the proceedings.

Dillard

DILLARD— The city of Dillard enacted a ban on on-premises restaurant dining due to COVID-19 concerns at a called emergency meeting on Monday, March 23.

However, all restaurants are allowed to stay open to serve takeout/curbside, pickup or delivery customers.

The ban went into effect at 5 p.m. on Tuesday and will continue “until further notice from the city.”

“We’re looking at a week at least, if that helps,” said Claude Dillard, council member.

Mayor Bill Robinson asked if there would be any restrictions put on grocery stores, but council members decided that the regulations would only apply to restaurants.

“All other businesses will follow CDC guidelines,” Dillard said.  

Dillard brought up alcohol sales and whether an alcohol limit should be established because of a required percentage of alcohol sales to food sales.

Council members decided not to put any guidelines on alcohol sales currently.

Chief of Police Jeremy Parker said that he would issue notices to all restaurants informing them of the decision.

Council members also passed a motion to cancel traffic court until further notice, except for pertinent business.

The exception should be for anyone who is incarcerated and is required to see a judge, Parker explained.

Dillard provided words of encouragement to attendees before the meeting adjourned.

 “Crazy times we’re in,” Dillard said. “Be safe out there.” 

Rabun County

The Rabun County Board of Commissioners voted Tuesday to also ban on-premises dining and restaurants located in unincorporated areas of the county, but likewise allowed the businesses to continue offering food to go.

The commissioners also approved a resolution to adopt all public health guidelines previously announced by Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp.

The courthouse remained open at press time Wednesday, but all other county-owned public facilities remain closed.

The commissioners are scheduled to meet again next week to determine how long the closures should be extended.

Wayne Knuckles also contributed to this story.