By Beau Evans
Capitol Beat News Service
Gov. Brian Kemp moved Monday to extend social distancing rules for businesses and stay-at-home orders for the state’s most vulnerable populations another two weeks amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
The governor also plans to extend the state’s public health emergency until Aug. 11, granting him more than a month to continue tapping into broad powers that allow him to issue executive orders.
The extended orders announced Monday ban gatherings of more than 50 people unless there is at least six feet of distance between them and require restaurants, bars and other businesses to keep their establishments routinely sanitized.
Georgians in long-term elderly care facilities and those with chronic health conditions will need to remain sheltered in place through July 15.
The governor also directed state education officials to draw up safe reopening rules for local school districts eyeing ways to resume in-person classes for the upcoming school year.
On Monday, Kemp acknowledged state health officials have seen an increase in positive cases and hospitalizations due to coronavirus in recent days, prompting him to order extensions of current social distancing rules.
"As we continue our fight against COVID-19 in Georgia, it is vital that Georgians continue to heed public health guidance by wearing a mask, washing their hands regularly and practicing social distancing," the governor said late Monday.
"We have made decisions throughout the pandemic to protect the lives – and livelihoods – of all Georgians by relying on data and the advice of public health officials."
Kemp has steadily eased up on social distancing requirements for Georgia businesses and other gathering spots since ending the state’s mandatory stay-at-home order at the end of April.
Since then, restaurants, bars and other social hotspots have been allowed to reopen with gradually loosened restrictions on occupancy limits and distancing rules.
The distancing extensions announced Monday come as positive coronavirus cases have ticked up in recent weeks following the Memorial Day holiday period late last month, according to data from the state Department of Public Health.
As of Monday afternoon, more than 79,000 people had tested positive in Georgia for COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel strain of coronavirus that sparked a global pandemic. The virus had killed 2,784 Georgians.
So far, Kemp has resisted pressure to impose a statewide mask mandate in Georgia as several states including New York, California and Kentucky have recently required residents to wear facial coverings in public.
Savannah Mayor Van Johnson has signaled he may place the city under a mask-wearing requirement as positive cases continue climbing.
The governor’s office insisted Monday the number of people dying from coronavirus remains low in Georgia while local outbreaks appear to be clustered in workplace settings, houses of worship and social gatherings.
Kemp is poised to embark on a five-city tour across the state this week to urge Georgians to wear masks and keep their distance from each other ahead of the upcoming July 4th holiday weekend.
The governor’s office also announced bulk shipments of face masks are being sent to local governments and schools in around three dozen counties.
Kemp also plans to hold a conference call Tuesday with school officials on how to distribute 2 million masks to local schools before students return for classes in the coming months.
Additionally, the governor circulated guidance Monday on how city and county governments hit hard by the pandemic can tap into roughly $1.2 billion remaining in federal coronavirus aid.
About $1.8 billion in funding from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES) has already been sent to five metro-Atlanta governments, according to Kemp’s office.