At a sparsely attended city council meeting Thursday evening, Cartersville Mayor Matt Santini took to the podium. Normally, the chambers of city hall are filled to the brim with local government department heads for such gatherings; with the exception of City of Cartersville Planning and Development Director Randy Mannino, however, there was no audience for Santini’s speech.
“Many cities have forced closings of businesses, I do not believe that is necessary here at this time,” he said. “If everyone acts responsibly, those businesses can continue to operate, keep their employees working and ride out this storm. You shouldn’t need the local government to tell you to do that, we’re all responsible for each other.”
“The only situation where I feel like we need to be adding a layer of states of emergency would be if the governor tells us we have to do it, our public health folks tell us we have to do it and/or the city manager and our public safety folks tell us to do it,” Santini said at Thursday’s meeting.
Both Santini and Cartersville City Manager Tamara Brock were in attendance at a Bartow County Emergency Management Agency (EMA) meeting on Friday afternoon. Santini’s signage of the joint resolution — which also grants Bartow County Commissioner Steve Taylor full “emergency powers” under local government code — occurred just a few hours after he met with representatives of Cartersville Medical Center (CMC) to discuss establishments not complying with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommendations in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak.
The evening prior, members of the Cartersville City Council voted unanimously to adopt an ordinance invoking the municipal government’s emergency management plan.
“The first thing it does is it activates the emergency operations plan that the local governments have already adopted, that’s already gone into effect,” said Cartersville Assistant City Attorney Keith Lovell. “We do have a provision in there that prevents hotel establishments from overcharging people relating to it, and basically, if we become aware of situations that this comes, it gives the police department the power to go issue citations to those people.”
Lovell said the emergency ordinance also grants Brock the ability to waive fees on utility payments, suspend utility cutoffs and override City code provisions at her discretion.
Meanwhile, Lovell said the ordinance grants Santini the ability to declare curfews and restrict access to even privately-owned establishments.
“With the emergency declaration, the mayor can pretty much do whatever he wants to, if he needs to, at this point,” Lovell said.
For City officials to restrict access, Lovell said the rationale for closures has to be related to “the actual emergency, and related to solving, or curing or protecting the public.” Yet as Lovell noted, local officials would be able to restrict access to certain establishments and properties without confirmation from agencies like the Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH) that said locations pose a known COVID-19 risk.
“It is not a power that I could even fathom using at this point, and not in the future, either,” Santini told The Daily Tribune News on Thursday evening. “I will let my 12 years of honest leadership in this community speak for itself.”
While Santini said the prospects of a mandated curfew in the city seem unlikely, Brock said COVID-19 diagnosis numbers from the DPH and CMC would be taken into consideration as possible factors for such an emergency measure.
“If we start implementing curfews and things like that, now we’re putting a burden on our police officers,” Santini said. “And quite honestly, they’re doing everything they can right now and we don’t need to be adding burden to what they’re going through.”
At least one council member voiced concerns about the provision allowing Brock the option to waive certain City fees.
“‘I’m late on my bill, I saw you weren’t going to charge any late fees,’” said Councilman Jayce Stepp. “People will abuse it.”
Lovell said all of the waivers authorized during the emergency ordinance would be submitted in writing and available to the public.
“A lot of people, unfortunately, live paycheck to paycheck and we’ll have to be making some hard decisions on what they can pay or not pay,” he said.
Lovell indicated there is no specified expiration date for the ordinance.
“It remains in effect until either the mayor does away with it our this board does away with it,” he said.
As of Thursday evening, Brock said the City had not seen an immediate financial impact from the coronavirus outbreak.
“I believe in the coming months, that will be something that we will have a better idea of,” she said. “When the March financials come in, that will be a key opportunity for us to look at it.”
Santini said it’s virtually a guarantee that the COVID-19 outbreak will greatly impact the City’s sales tax revenue. Still, he said it was “irresponsible” to speculate on the local government’s long-term financial situation at the moment.
As far as potential guidelines on travel restrictions and “shelter in place” policies, Santini said such measures aren’t even being discussed by City officials.
“I don’t think we’re going to get to that point, at least I’m hopeful that we’re not,” he said.
“Unfortunately, we have a lot of positions that people are required to be here to run facilities everyday,” she said. “So it’s staggering shift times, working in smaller numbers for a shift, looking at what services we could potentially limit or change our scheduling.”
The council also voted unanimously to approve one other emergency ordinance at Thursday’s meeting — a package providing vacation/sick time relief for City employees.
The ordinance gives employees an additional 40 hours of paid time off. Yet as Brock noted, the ordinance will only be in effect for roughly two weeks.
“The Families First Coronavirus Response Act that will go into effect by the federal government in 15 days will supersede this,” she said. “It just gives us some protection for our employees during that time period.”