IN A state that’s been strongly red for decades, Republican Gov. Brian Kemp won his election in 2018 by only about 50,000 votes, in a contest marked by allegations of voter suppression.
That thin mandate had already granted him very little margin for error in consolidating public support.
But whatever benefit of the doubt he’s been granted, at least in our local area, has almost completely dried up.
His actions during the coronavirus pandemic have been nothing short of embarrassing, and at worst, deadly.
Thanks to our governor, Georgia became a national laughingstock when Kemp said during a press conference that he’d only learned “within the past 24 hours” that the virus can be spread from asymptomatic people.
That’s literally one of the first things everyone else learned about the virus.
Georgia then made more national news for a needless and infuriating showdown between Kemp and local officials.
His long awaited ‘shelter-in-place’ order, going into effect this past Friday, turned out not to be the more restrictive measure desperately called for by area officials.
Rather, it was an almost laughably watered-down measure which would actually undo much of the good that local officials worked so hard to implement.
Under the order, malls, churches, car dealerships, and golf courses can be open, among other things, as long as a vague measure of social distancing is observed.
Written specifically to nullify any local measures already in place, Kemp’s executive order can be seen as a grotesque abuse of office — and one that might prove lethal.
The focus of the showdown had a Churchillian element: It was fought on the beaches.
When people realized Kemp’s order mandated that the Tybee beach re-open, all hell broke loose on local social media.
The timing couldn’t have been more ridiculous. Even our two stubbornly conservative border states of South Carolina and Florida had closed their beaches, recognizing the extreme threat of large gatherings of people spreading the virus.
And Kemp decided to re-open ours.
Even the most rock-ribbed conservatives all over the Savannah area were calling the Republican governor a “moron,” an “idiot,” and things we can’t print here.
The irony was rich in many ways. After a rocky start, Tybee Island had finally gotten things right on the pandemic.
As Tybee Island City Councilman Monty Parks posted:
“We had this. We had this place closed down tighter than a tick after a full meal. The beaches were closed, the parking lots were closed, the STVR managers and hotels had voluntarily complied with our ordinance, the gift shops and the t shirt shops were in full compliance. At 11 pm, everything closed and at no time was an open container allowed. Our restaurants were in full compliance. WE HAD THIS!!!”
Tybee Mayor Shirley Sessions — normally soft-spoken by nature — showed a steely resolve worthy of Churchill himself in the face of the governor’s order.
In a statement Saturday morning, she excoriated the state’s chief executive:
“Tybee City Council and I are devastated by the sudden directives and do not support his decisions. The health of our residents, staff and visitors are being put at risk and we will pursue legal avenues to overturn his reckless mandate,” Sessions wrote.
Taking the notion of “home rule” to its logical extreme, Tybee decided to outsmart Kemp. That’s a low bar, I know.
Acknowledging the state’s authority to re-open the beach, but only the beach, Tybee decided to drastically limit what it could control: beach access and parking.
In the City of Savannah, unfortunately, it’s not as easy as shutting off a few paths through the dunes.
During Mayor Van Johnson’s usual Friday night Facebook Live session — what I’ve taken to calling his Fireside Chat, a la FDR — he wasn’t shy about expressing his frustration with the governor’s flip-flop of first encouraging localities to do their own thing, then totally undercutting them.
“Savannah came up with remedies that we felt were right to protect Savannahians,” the Mayor told viewers.
“This [order] in my mind is dangerous, it’s irresponsible, and it’s sad... it’s important that you continue to do what we have asked you to do.”
On the governor’s lack of basic knowledge about coronavirus, Johnson said, “I was mortified... this blew my mind. I’m not all that smart, but I knew two and a half weeks ago” that the virus could be spread by those without symptoms.
I try to refrain from criticizing other local media here, because we all live in some sort of glass house, me included.
But the Savannah Morning News headline on Johnson’s reaction — “Defying Georgia governor, Savannah mayor extends city’s state-of-emergency orders through April 30” — was not only inflammatory, it was something even worse for journalists: factually inaccurate.
The story was about Johnson extending the City’s own, more restrictive shelter-in-place order through the end of April. This simply means that if the state order isn’t extended past its own April 13 deadline, the City’s order will immediately go back into effect.
With this act, Johnson did not “defy” the governor, as the local daily paper claims. He knows his order can’t legally override the governor’s.
He simply acted preemptively to make sure that if the state continued to fail its citizens, the City would have an existing protocol already in place.
The real danger now is twofold: First, and most obviously, Kemp’s executive order could actually end up promoting the spread of the virus.
Secondly, but also key, Kemp’s order has so eroded public confidence in his leadership that virtually anything he says and does from this point forward with regards to COVID-19 is likely to be dismissed as the ravings of an ignoramus.
That’s bad for Kemp politically, but much more importantly, it’s bad for the people of Georgia.
So, into this leadership gap charge local leaders who must make life-and-death decisions, while in positions that are usually more focused on filling potholes.
Theirs is a job already hard enough during this challenging time — and now made even more difficult when leadership at the top is so very lacking.