LaGrange mayor calls for gatherings to cease

Published 6:35 pm Monday, March 23, 2020

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LaGrange Mayor Jim Thornton had a bold message for churches and any organization gathering masses of people during the COVID-19 outbreak Monday morning.

“You should be ashamed of yourself for having church services and bringing hundreds of people together,” he said during a Facebook Live roundtable discussion with other community leaders. “One of those people could be exposed to this virus and guess what, now 100 are exposed, and they are going to go and expose two, three four hundred more people.”

Thornton said he attends church services regularly on Sunday mornings but the past two weeks, his church — LaGrange First United Methodist Church — had done an online service.

“A lot of the spread of this virus has occurred at churches,” he said. “If you turn on the news, you’ll find a lot more people have caught coronavirus by going to church or going to a funeral service or going to some type of church-related gathering, than you will find anybody who’s been to a restaurant or a gym or a city council meeting.”

He urged the public to be smart and follow the guidelines set forth by the Georgia Department of Public Health and the Center for Disease Control. He said Troup County and all three cities within the county have declared a state of emergency, but nobody has enforced a curfew, imposed a municipal-wide quarantine or shut down any private businesses. He said most are looking to the governor’s office for guidance.

“I’m not saying we don’t have the authority to do that, but we don’t have nearly the authority that the governor does,” Thornton said. “And so, we have been looking to the governor for guidance.”

He said he expects the state to put out revised guidelines soon with additional orders cities will have to force on the local level. He said the cities will do that because they are required to. But, for now, Thornton said is strongly urging the public to follow guidelines.

He said if people practice social distancing and listen to the CDC, then the government wouldn’t have to impost any kind of mandate or restrictions.

“We really are appealing to our residents and to our business owners to do the right thing here and do what you need to do to protect yourselves and to protect all of us in our community,” Thornton said.

He asked businesses to close down dining rooms but keep drive-thru and curbside services open.

“That’s just smart, and that good for you and it’s good for your customers,” Thornton said. “If you are a business that brings people within close proximity of each other — don’t. Don’t do that.”

He said the business climate will take a hit for a few weeks but if the community can stop the virus from spreading, it may only be a few weeks. But, if it can’t be stopped, it could be months of a similar situation.

“Most of our businesses can survive a couple of weeks. I don’t know that many of us can survive six months,” Thornton said. “So, we’ve got to get ahead of this we got to make this make this happen.”

Troup County Chairman Patrick Crew echoed some of the same thoughts, adding that the county is also asking for voluntary compliance at this point. However, he said conversations about mandating a quarantine has happened but before anything would happen, he would like to get the three cities on board.

“I think it’s important that we would act as a group,” Crews said. “If voluntary compliance doesn’t get us where we need to be, then I’m afraid we could be looking at mandated compliance. We’re better than that as a community.”

Georgia Department of Public District 4 Director Dr. Olugbenga Obasanjo said he’s noticed Troup County has been fairly compliant when it comes to social distancing. He said he didn’t see any need for a mandated quarantine as of Monday morning.

However, he said the Department of Public Health does have the power to detain individuals if they are seen as a public health threat. Obasanjo said the power lies with Dr. Kathleen E. Toomey, the state’s public health director. He said she has the authority to delegate that power, which usually goes to the health directors like Obasanjo.

Thornton said if Obasanjo, the public health department or the governor’s office recommends the city impose a curfew or quarantine, the city will follow that direction.

“We’re going to do that because we’re going to follow the guidance of the public health officials,” he said. “They are the experts in the field.”