The Northwest Georgia Housing Authority will be distributing 2,500 masks for public housing residents, beginning Monday.
The masks can be picked up at the manager’s office for each of the public housing properties.
The distribution follows on the heels of a Rome City Commission emergency order requiring the use of face coverings in public within the city limits. The order took effect Tuesday and will remain in force through Aug. 24.
Another 10 Floyd County residents tested positive for COVID-19 Tuesday, bringing the total number of infections over time to 755. More than half of them were reported in the past 30 days despite a daily cap on testing.
The City Commission’s decision was controversial and the debate prior to the vote was impassioned.
Many of the concerns related to enforcement — and some speakers still questioned the ability of face coverings to stop the spread of the coronavirus, despite strong assurances from local medical leaders.
“It’s really a simple thing,” Harbin Clinic CEO Kenna Stock told the Rome City and Floyd County boards at a special called meeting last week.
Dr. Gary Voccio, the health director for Georgia’s Northwest Health District, alongside Floyd Medical Center CEO Kurt Stuenkel and Redmond Regional Medical Center CEO John Quinlivan concurred.
During the Monday public comment period, Rome insurance executive Mark Swanson passed out thick binder notebooks to any commissioner who wanted one, claiming the information showed masks could encourage viral spread. When he asked Mayor Bill Collins for additional time, several members of the audience offered him some of theirs, even though they had not registered to speak.
However, Commissioner Bonny Askew stood firm with a reminder that the issue was about a public health emergency.
“This is about your life,” Askew said. “For us to sit back and say I don’t want to do it because it makes some people uncomfortable is irresponsible on our part. And it’s irresponsible on the part of people who refuse to wear masks because they know for a fact that wearing a mask is saving someone else’s life.”
Commissioner Wendy Davis got into the discussion to point out that, from her perspective, the main purpose of masks is to prevent the wearer from spewing out droplets into the air. During the premeeting caucus, Davis had City Manager Sammy Rich play a video showing that someone with a harsh cough could spew droplets as far as 12 feet. Some masks were significantly more effective than others in reducing the distance.
Other residents speaking during the public comment period, including Caroline Young, encouraged commissioners to support the mask mandate.
“If we don’t take precautions there will be no normal to get back to,” Young said.
Mallory Rogers, a rising senior at Rome High, said she didn’t feel safe walking down Broad Street with so many people out and not wearing masks.
The nine-page emergency order specifically mandates the wearing of masks in public places within the city of Rome when social distancing is not feasible. A public place is defined as any place that is not inside an individual’s home or automobile.
“All persons entering a commercial establishment must wear a face covering while inside the establishment. This does not apply to religious establishments,” reads Section 1.2 of the emergency order.
Section 1.3 stipulates that “all restaurants, retail stores, salons, barber shops, grocery stores, office and pharmacies shall require all employees to wear a face covering or mask at all times while engaged in face to face interaction within a public place.”
Section 1.4 provides that any person who is unable to wear a mask or face covering due to age or underlying health condition is exempt from the order.
Other exceptions include while someone is engaged in outdoor physical exercise; when someone is alone in an enclosed location or only with members of his or her own household; while eating, drinking or smoking; during organized sports; when a health provider determines that wearing a mask could aggravate a health condition; and when wearing a mask would prevent someone from obtaining personal services.
Violations could carry a fine of $25 on first offense, $50 on second offense and $100 on each subsequent offense.
A business that doesn’t enforce the order could be deemed a public nuisance. City Attorney Andy Davis said the city would consult with any such business owners before taking legal action to abate the nuisance.
Enforcement was a huge issue for Commissioner Craig McDaniel, who voted against the mandate along with Commissioner Jim Bojo, who said he felt like the board was acting as “babysitters” to the public.
“There are attorneys out there chomping at the bit to challenge this,” McDaniel said.
While Gov. Brian Kemp has said his emergency order prohibits local governments from enacting stricter restrictions than the state, Davis noted that Kemp has not gone to Savannah or Athens or Decatur to try to stop them from enforcing similar mask mandates.
“Enforcement is not the question here,” Askew said. “If the governor wants to do what he says he wants to do, to keep businesses open and people safe, then what he would do is enforce what he has out there and we wouldn’t have to do this.”
A contingent of students in the Medical Assisting program at Georgia Northwestern Technical College are on track to graduate in August, despite the COVID-19 pandemic.
Sharon Vaughan, clinical coordinator and instructor for the program, said she and other instructors have been meeting with small groups to finish up the spring and summer requirements.
“We have been working since May 18 to make sure we make up for the time we lost in the spring,” Vaughan said. “Fortunately, we got the more intensive labs done at the beginning of the semester.”
The program prepares students for a wide variety of jobs in medical offices.
During a recent class outside a building on GNTC’s Floyd County campus, a small group of students spaced 6 feet apart practiced the proper procedure for putting on and removing their personal protective equipment.
While it may seem simple, Vaughn said, if done improperly it could lead to contamination. It’s also part of the school’s protocol to ensure a safe lab experience.
Over at the Walker County campus, groups are limited to six students each and they stand on marked spots while in their labs. Martha Smith, assistant dean of Health Technologies and instructor on that campus, said they’ve been working on phlebotomy as well as medical techniques on manikins.
“During the labs, I ensured they were properly gloved, masked, face shielded and gowned,” Smith said. “Currently, my students are at their clinical sites and I have been making sure I visit each one to check up on them.”
The coronavirus spread has not put a stop to externships with local medical partners. The PPE training was part of the training required by Floyd Medical Center, which provided the program with the materials. Other labs the students have been taking include spirometry testing, electrocardiography and vision tests.
Vaughan said all of the students finishing the program this summer are on track to graduate despite COVID-related delays. Students who began in the fall of 2019 will be eligible to walk in the Aug. 11 drive-through graduation at the Floyd County campus.
“We already had an online presence and expanded that with video lectures and virtual forums,” Vaughan said. “Once it was safe to meet again, we made sure our students did not miss out on the hands-on portion of the course. We put our heads together and made sure they got everything out of the Medical Assisting program.”
Poll workers and residents approached the podium at the Floyd County Board of Elections’ monthly meeting Tuesday to raise questions about assistance for voters with disabilities and nonnative English speakers.
Chief Elections Clerk Robert Brady said a person would have to be certified by the state to be assigned at the polls to help people who speak Spanish or another language.
However, it is legal for a person to come to the polls with a family member to help them vote and understand the ballot, he added.
Elections board members indicated they will look at the possibility of having poll workers who are certified to help. However, they said they wouldn’t be able to add the positions for the upcoming Aug. 11 runoff election.
Resident Daniel Eason and Rome City Commissioner Wendy Davis were among the advocates for in-person assistance at precincts. They said it should be easier for people in wheelchairs, those who are deaf, blind or illiterate or are otherwise impaired.
One example of handicap access would be a polling booth set low enough for someone in a wheelchair to be able to use it.
Eason said he found that the secretary of state’s office allows in-person assistance to anyone with a disability that makes it difficult for them to cast votes — and it may be anyone who isn’t their employer or a representative from their union.
Brady recognized that, but again said it can’t be a poll worker unless the person is certified.
The board also mentioned the numerous letters they have received and said they will try to address all of the concerns in future meetings.
Both the June meeting, last week’s special called meeting and the meeting Tuesday drew a large number of attendees. They’ve voiced complaints about problems during the June 9 primary and said they want to ensure there are changes for the runoff and the Nov. 3 general election.
Also on Tuesday, board member Melanie Conrad announced the start of training sessions for new poll workers.
Dozens have signed up in recent weeks.
Conrad said the sessions will focus on general operations but would also address some of the uncommon problems that might arise at the precincts.
Floyd County voters have two races to decide in the Aug. 11 runoff, both on the Republican ballot.
Tom Caldwell and Dave Roberson are vying for the sheriff’s office. With no Democrat in the race, the winner will be the sole candidate in the November election.
Also, Dr. John Cowan and Marjorie Taylor Greene are seeking their party’s nomination to replace U.S. Rep. Tom Graves, R-Ranger, in the Northwest Georgia congressional district. The winner will face Democrat Kevin Van Ausdal.
Early in-person voting will take place at the Floyd County Administration Building, 12 E. Fourth Ave. from July 20 through Aug. 7. Hours are from 8 am. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday. One Saturday voting date is set for Aug. 1 from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Voters who were registered by July 13 and did not vote in the Democratic primary are eligible to cast a ballot.
St. Mary’s Catholic School officials are currently planning to start in-person classes on Aug. 12, but that may change if Gov. Brian Kemp extends the Georgia state of emergency order.
Right now, the state of emergency is set to expire on Aug. 11, the day before the school plans to open its building back up. However, the school has put contingency plans in place if this doesn’t work out.
According to Christa Jackson, the director of admission advancement, they may continue doing their at-home learning they started in March, depending on when the order expires.
“It should be noted that there are situations, such as a pandemic, that are beyond our control,” Jackson said.
If they do go back to school, students will have the option to continue remote learning if they or a household member is considered high risk or has health issues.
For those who go back to in-person classes, the administration will be following guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization, the American Academy of Pediatrics and other health-related organizations. They also plan to adapt their policies if government directives and orders change.
The CDC recommends schools require students and faculty wear face coverings, such as cloth masks and face shields, at most times throughout the day. Guidance includes increasing the amount of cleaning and sanitizing of surfaces around the school and supplying hand sanitizer and other cleaning materials to students and faculty.
St. Mary’s administrators plan to continue monitoring the pandemic and case numbers as they approach the August date and beyond to determine what will be the best and safest option for the students and teachers.
“We appreciate the support and partnership of our families as we navigate these uncertain times and do our best to provide our students with a safe environment,” Jackson said.