ATLANTA — Lawmakers reconvened Monday to pass the governor’s joint resolution declaring a public health emergency for the first time in Georgia.
The final resolution gives no end date on the governor's executive powers, giving his administration complete control over laws, state agencies and travel restrictions related the COVID-19 pandemic through mid-April.
The unprecedented move required lawmakers to gather at the Capitol despite postponing the legislative session last week amid coronavirus outbreak. Medical professionals were on scene at the Capitol taking temperatures of members and staff if requested.
The declaration, Gov. Brian Kemp said, will help support health and emergency management officials by “deploying all available resources for the mitigation and treatment of COVID-19.”
But legislators were at an impasse for hours over whether to grant the governor the unprecedented powers indefinitely during the public health emergency.
The House and Senate battled over the requirement for the Georgia General Assembly to ratify a renewal of the declaration once it expires in 30 days. The Senate version of the resolution would give the governor executive power to extend the emergency status. The House version would require legislators to reconvene and ratify the declaration again.
Both chambers agreed to strike the 30-day time limit on the emergency declaration and clarify if lawmakers are "unable to return" to extend the state of the public health emergency, the governor can extend the declaration if he sees fit.
Paired with the declaration, two-thirds of both chambers signed an order that was sent to the governor that mandates the return of the General Assembly for a special session April 15.
In the midst of discussions, House staff confirmed one member is in self-quarantine after being exposed to an individual with a confirmed case of coronavirus.
"We had a member who was exposed to someone who tested positive for the virus," Kaleb McMichen, spokesman for House Speaker David Ralston, said in a statement. "That member has voluntarily self-quarantined and is not here today."
The identity of that person was not released.
The number of confirmed cases in Georgia jumped to 121, scattered throughout 23 counties on Monday. The state reported its first death last week, a 67-year-old man who was hospitalized in Cobb County.
Testing in the State Public Health Lab has been ramped up to 100 kits per day, according to the governor's office, and those numbers are expected to jump to 200 a day by the end of the week — not including private lab and hospital testing.
“This public health emergency is unprecedented for the State of Georgia, and I do not take this action lightly,” Kemp said. “It is a more specialized form of a state of emergency and allows for a more robust response to crisis specifically in the health-care sector."
The declaration gives Kemp executive authority to invoke new laws and regulations and assume direct control over “all civil forces and helpers in the state.” It also allows the governor to transfer duties of state agencies and personnel to emergency management functions.
On Sunday, lawmakers took to social media to update the public on a conference call the governor held with legislators — updating them on testing capacity and federal funds on the way. Lawmakers also said it was unclear how the $100 million in reserve funds are going to be deployed.
House Speaker David Ralston opened the House Monday saying he knew members would be back, but did not think it would be this soon.
“The challenges we face are many, as we take this step today,” Ralston said. "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.”
Rep. Calvin Smyre, D-Columbus — the longest-serving member of the House — gave the invocation in the House Monday morning.
“Ladies and gentlemen of this House, we are in uncertain times but this is a time for us to speak with one voice and act with one heart,” he said. “Dedicated to the proposition that we must act, and we must act today.”
Sen. Majority Leader Mike Dugan, R-Carrollton, said lawmakers must act immediately to limit the spread of coronavirus.
"This is one of those situations where half the population is out there going 'Are they overreacting?'" he said on the Senate floor. "And the other half are going 'Are they doing enough?' And unfortunately the only way we can know if we're overreacting is to not do anything and then see where the disease takes us."
The resolution, he said, does a number of things such as limit commercial trucking across the state, but it mostly supports the Department of Public Health.
"Is it important? Yes," Dugan said. "Is it critical? Yes. Is it dire? Not if we pass this and get out in front of it."
Last week, Kemp urged schools districts to take action and close if necessary and cautioned faith-based organizations from holding services. As per the declaration, Kemp urged state agencies to institute teleworking policies immediately.
Kemp called on the Georgia National Guard to respond to the outbreak, signing an executive order to activate 2,000 state troops to move to State Active Duty to support state response efforts.
The Georgia National Guard has already assisted the 31 Georgians, who were former passengers on the Grand Princess cruise ship, move from Dobbins Air Reserve Base to their homes for quarantine and monitoring.