CAIRO — A public health emergency has been declared in Grady County, and residents are being told to shelter in place, avoid gatherings of 10 or more people and to be mindful of social distancing guidelines.

County commissioners met in a special called meeting Friday morning to approve a joint declaration of a state of emergency in response to the novel coronavirus. The order will take effect Saturday at 6 a.m.

“Through productive discussion and think-tanking, we have found an agreement that we believe is in the best interests of our public safety and well-being without completely inhibiting the freedoms we as citizens and business owners have a right to,” said commission chair Keith Moye.

A shelter-in-place order has been instituted between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. daily. The order does not strictly confine residents to their homes, allowing residents to participate in “essential activities” such as grocery shopping, working and caring for others. Individuals at high risk of severe illness are encouraged to remain at home except to seek medical care. Public and private gatherings of more than 10 people are prohibited.

Grocery stores will remain open but are not to exceed 50 percent occupancy at any given time. Shoppers are to observe social distancing and are not to be within six feet of one another for extended periods of time.

Churches across the county will cancel in-person worship services. Funeral services may take place as long as indoor attendance is limited to less than 10 people.

Production facilities and distribution centers will remain open so long as workers adhere to social distancing guidelines. Information technology businesses are deemed “essential infrastructure” and can continue to provide services, as are plumbers, electricians, mechanics and similar trades. Doctors and dentists are also allowed to continue operations.

Businesses deemed “non-essential” can continue to provide curbside, pickup or drive-through services. Restaurant dining rooms will be closed, as are bars, nightclubs, gyms, barber shops, beauty salons and dance studios.

Outdoor parks will remain open, but gatherings of 10 or more people will not be allowed.

The order states that violators will be punished “to the greatest extent permitted,” up to and including arrest and prosecution.

“It is important to understand that we are in uncharted waters with no definitive end time frame,” Moye said.

The Cairo City Council unanimously approved the resolution later Friday morning. The City of Whigham is scheduled to adopt the joint declaration Saturday.

Copies of the order will be circulated on social media and electronic billboards.

Local officials met at the Grady County Courthouse Wednesday to discuss the possibility of implementing a state of emergency — an idea that was not entirely popular among elected leaders in the area earlier this week. Particularly unappealing to officials with the cities of Cairo and Whigham was a document released by the Georgia Municipal Association that County Administrator Buddy Johnson described as a “template” for local governments across the state.

“We’re not anti-GMA, but we just felt like it was kind of a cookie-cutter document that didn’t really fit what Grady’s needs were,” Johnson said.

Other issues included whether or not to implement a curfew and, if so, what times it should take place. Another discussion concerned what businesses should be deemed “non-essential.”

Johnson said he was unsure a state of emergency would be declared at the beginning of the Wednesday meeting. Both cities were strongly opposed to the idea, and though Johnson said the county was more open to the concept, he said there was caution as to not impose an unpopular solution. Despite some initial unwillingness, the county administrator said he believes everyone in the room entered the discussion with an open mind.

“I can say candidly, we didn’t hold anything back in those meetings,” Moye said.

After agreeing that the GMA template was unsuitable for Grady County, officials began researching emergency declarations issued in other cities and counties across the state, particularly those of comparable demographics and circumstances.

Cairo Mayor pro tem Jerry Cox said he was initially “cautious” of taking such a drastic measure, but began to believe it was necessary to stress the seriousness of the situation to the public after listening to experts at the local and state levels. Cox said declaring a state of emergency also could possibly better position the community to later receive reimbursement funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency down the road. Johnson said the declaration can act as a public show of support for local Department of Public Health officials in case a business disputes a decision that they be shut down.

“I think we all found a happy meeting ground where everybody can say it’s not so intrusive that it just shuts people out, but it’s also not just a blanket document that doesn’t mean anything,” he said.

A final draft of the emergency declaration was prepared Thursday morning, and local officials were ready to vote on it that evening.

The emergency declaration will remain in effect though April 13 at 8 a.m.

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