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LaGrange City Council votes to close dining rooms in restaurants for two months

The LaGrange City Council voted Tuesday night to close the dining rooms of all restaurants within the city limits.

The council amended its state of emergency ordinance passed on March 17 to close dining rooms but have allowed restaurants to continue serving food by delivery, drive-thru and take-out services.

Employees of the establishments must maintain at least six feet of person distance between themselves as much as possible.

Additionally, the amended ordinance closes all gyms, fitness centers, indoor amusement facilities, bowling alleys, pool halls, theaters, massage parlors, nail salons, hair salons, barbershops, tattoo parlors and other similar facilities. They all must close and remain closed for the duration of this emergency, which is 60 days from the originally passed state of emergency.

The ordinance also says establishments such as grocery stores, pharmacies, and other retail businesses that remain open during the emergency must post signage on entrance doors informing consumers to maintain at least six feet of personal distance between themselves.

The council is also prohibiting all public and private gatherings of more than 10 people occurring outside of a household or living unit. Nothing in the ordinance prohibits the gathers of individuals for business that isn’t deemed essential by the Georgia Emergency Management Agency.

LaGrange Mayor Jim Thornton said the council’s action were to fill in some of the gaps left by Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp’s executive order Monday, which stopped short of closing dine-in services for restaurants as well as private businesses.

Thornton said there are several people within the city limits who have complied with laws to self-isolate and have been doing what they can to protect themselves, friends, co-workers and employees.

“Unfortunately, we’ve also got some folks who simply haven’t been doing the right thing and who haven’t been following all of those guidelines,” he said.

During the meeting, the council nixed the idea of a curfew which was included in a model Georgia Municipal Association ordinance that was sent out to several cities in the state as a recommendation to implement. The council unanimously voted to delete it from the ordinance.  The curfew would’ve been from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. and would have required residents to stay in their homes or on their property during the curfew, except for a few exempt individuals.

Additionally, LaGrange Police Chief Lou Dekmar said he wasn’t in support of the curfew.

“I don’t believe that with the businesses closing down that is something that is immediately necessary,” he said. “I’m also concerned that you know there may be some quarters of our community that would resent this, and it would place a different enforcement burden on us.”

Thornton said the emergency ordinance can be lifted by the council at any time, but it can also be renewed at any time.

As for violation of the gathering ordinance amendment, Dekmar said the local police will treat it as any ordinance violation.

“We always provide the opportunity for voluntary compliance,” he said. “We find that 95 percent of people when they learn there is an ordinance want to do what is right and want to comply.”

He said the police department hasn’t had problems with large gatherings since the local state of emergency went into place on March 17. He said an ordinance violation is treated as a low-level misdemeanor, which could see penalties such as a $1,000 fine or six months in jail.

Kemp’s executive order Monday empowered the Georgia Department of Public Health to detain individuals or possibly close businesses that are following the guidelines set forth by government officials. Dekmar said the police are not in charge of enforcing the governor’s executive order but can inform the health department of violation. He said local police will also assist the health department if asked.

Additionally, with the original state of emergency, utilities with the city will not be cut off during the duration of the state of emergency for non-payment, but the meters will continue to run. Thornton said he and City Manager Keg Kelsey will revisit that situation if the emergency goes longer than the 60 days.

“If the emergency last two weeks, that’s one thing,” he said. “If it lasts for six months, that’s a totally different issue.”

Thornton also recognized these decisions and the virus will cause several people to be out of work.

“Hopefully the federal government’s going to come through with some major economic relief,” he said. “Potentially the state will and yes, I think we all recognize at some point the city may have to be a participant in that for the businesses.”

Thornton said there are also a lot of individuals who won’t be able to work and need to earn a living.

At the beginning of the meeting, he said the COVID-19 healthcare crisis has presented difficult times for everybody throughout the country, let along LaGrange.

“Everyone is suffering,” he said. “There is no one that I’m aware of who is doing well in this particular time in dealing with this particular virus.”