The COVID-19 outbreak and the response from local, state and federal leaders, including the recent shelter-in-place order from Gov. Brian Kemp, has led to a lot of questions from the public about what they can do and where they can go.
On Monday, some members of the public had a chance to have their questions answered, as Forsyth County Sheriff Ron Freeman and Emergency Management Director Chris Grimes took part in a virtual town hall hosted by the Forsyth County Chamber of Commerce Chairman Carter Patterson.
“The chamber has been receiving numerous calls from various business owners, questions regarding the governor's shelter-in-place order he announced last Wednesday, so we reached out to the sheriff to explain what shelter-in-place means,” Patterson said.
How is the community complying with the order?
Freeman estimated that about 70% of the community was complying with the executive order, which he had observed over the weekend.
“I had some people calling me all weekend telling me at Home Depot, at Lowe's, as an example, there were more people there than normal on the weekend,” Freeman said. “Well, that's not accurate, there weren't. I know because I went out and rode around. I went and looked at those stores. I drove around all weekend, pretty much, to see for myself what is going on.”
While most were in compliance, Freeman said his office “had to have conversations” with people at boat ramps, some neighborhood cul-de-sacs and even a party over the weekend.
“We're probably at 70% compliance, but if we get to 90%, you know what? We get out of this faster, we open our businesses back up and we get back to our way of life,” Freeman said. “So, we've got a little ways to go.”
Who is essential?
One of the most common questions related to the coronavirus response is which businesses are and are not essential.
“It requires 16 different things that you do, and I'm not going to go into every one of them, but just some of them,” Freeman said. “You have to screen your employees. If they appear to be sick, you even have to take their temperature... you have to have sanitation in the workplace, require hand washing – gee, I hope we're already doing that to begin with – you have to provide as available personal protective equipment.”
In the meeting, there was another question asking if it was legal to take an employee's temperature, and Freeman said the governor's order gave employers that power and Grimes told businesses that might have concerns to consult their legal counsel.
Freeman said companies should be attempting to allow employees to work from home as much as possible and making sure that employees who are on-premises should practice social distancing as much as possible.
The state did layout certain businesses that had to close – such as bars, gyms, bowling alleys, theaters, amusement parks, restaurants, barbershops and others – but allowed for “minimum basic operations.”
“The way the order reads, unless you're one of those 19 businesses that must close your doors to the public, you can actually keep your doors open, but there are 20 requirements, not suggestions, that you must do,” Freeman said.
Even those businesses that are closed to the public can still go into their place of business and do things like paperwork and payroll.
“I don't want somebody to think they have to shut down if they have the ability to at least virtually run their business right now,” Freeman said. “Again, it's not my business we're talking about, but if you can bring in 30% of income versus 100%, I'd still rather have 30% coming in in these tough times."
Where can I go?
In response to a question, Freeman said drivers would not need any kind of paperwork or note from their company to travel and his officers would not be stopping cars to see where they are going.
“You are required by law to do only necessary travel--essential travel is the actual term--to do those things that comply with what this executive order says,” Freeman said. “That being said, nobody in Forsyth County Sheriff's Office is going to be pulling people over for driving down the road unless there is a legal reason to pull you over like you're speeding or you're weaving or you're doing something else.”
Responding to a different question, Grimes said there was not a curfew in place in Forsyth County or anywhere else in the state.
“One thing the governor's order did is basically said all the counties that have taken actions that are in conflict with the governor's executive orders, that they had already done their shelter-in-place orders or curfews – that if those conflicted, were null and void,” Grimes said.
Freeman said while the governor did have the authority to impose a curfew, he had not heard anything to suggest the state was considering that after talking with Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan's office.
Asked if people were allowed to go camping or riding around, Freeman and Grimes said driving just to sight-see was not essential travel and that most campgrounds were closed due to concerns of spreading the disease at public restrooms or other facilities but staying in an RV or a private camping spot, such as a hunting camp, was less of a concern.
“The whole idea right now is, regardless of the order, is to avoid unnecessary travel, to avoid unnecessary contact, flatten this curve out and get us back open into our way of life,” Freeman said.
One area of travel that is allowed is providing care for elderly relatives, though officials said precautions should still be taken not to spread the disease to vulnerable populations.
Freeman said he had responses in the community saying everything from the county's reaction wasn't enough to it infringing on rights. He said he couldn't rule out that the sheriff's office taking action if needed to disperse crowds.
“If somebody pushes the envelope, if somebody endangers the community, if somebody tells me they're going to have a huge party and they don't care what the executive order said, we'll go out and have a conversation,” Freeman said.
How is Forsyth County being impacted and what can we do?
As of Monday afternoon, Forsyth County had 80 reported cases of the novel coronavirus and one death due to the disease.
Asked how the community can help speed up the recovery, Grimes had a simple answer.
“Stay at home if you don't feel good,” he said. “We're seeing some evidence now that asymptomatic carriers can pass the virus, which is why the CDC just Friday came out and said [they encouraged] face masks being worn, so you're likely going to start seeing more face masks worn.”
Grimes said when residents call first responders, they need to mention if anyone in the house is not feeling well so they can take proper precautions.
Freeman said he understood adults not wanting to be told to stay home but encouraged the community to stay home, to put off any projects that might require going to busy stores and to avoid needlessly using PPE products.
He said there had not been any cases of COVID-19 for first responders, but some were under observation.
“I've got two people in quarantine right now. We’ve had other first responders in quarantine. We've had several tested,” Freeman said. “We haven't had a positive test of a first responder in Forsyth County but surrounding counties have.”
Freeman said the outbreak was even impacting crime in Forsyth County, which was generally down, though there was an increase among domestic disputes, which the office was working with agencies and nonprofits to address.
“We also have to be very concerned about abusers in the home,” he said. “I'm talking about a serial domestic violence person. An abuser might only have so much access because the kids are at school and the wife's working and those types of things. Well if everyone is home right now, that kind of lends itself to a really horrible potential of an increase in domestic violence.”
While there have been a lot of concerns, both Freeman and Grimes said the community had been very supportive of first responders during the COVID-19 outbreak.
“The response that we've gotten and the other first responders have gotten has been nothing short of incredible. From donations of masks and hand sanitizer to vitamin drinks to food being brought to the first responders, it's been incredible,” Freeman said, “and it's not being lost on us what's happening in our community and the challenges this is causing, the challenges it is causing our business community. I hope that you understand, we're very clear -- we need our business to succeed.”