The Need for More Answers: A Talk with Georgia House Rep. Bee Nguyen

Updates on the COVID-19 pandemic as it continues to evolve in Georgia

Georgia House Rep. Bee Nguyen (District 89). Photo Credit: Bee For Georgia.

On Mon., March 16, the Georgia General Assembly convened to ratify the Governor\’s call to declare a State of Emergency in Georgia. After nearly eight hours, the Senate and the House reached an agreement and Gov. Brian Kemp was given executive power for the next 30 days. The General Assembly will meet again on April 15, 2020, to take a vote on whether or not to end those executive powers.

As the COVID-19 crisis continues to rapidly evolve, it appears Georgia leaders have been making moves to create important systemic shifts and safety nets to support those affected (everyone) throughout the state. News of arrived from the mayor\’s office on Tues., March 17, that they would be working with its partners to halt evictions and the assembly approved a $100 million in emergency funding to address the pandemic. Gov. Kemp ordered that all public schools be closed through March 31 and the federal government recommended limiting public gatherings to 10 people and maintaining a distance of six feet apart.

With these developments come a lot of questions. When do the emergency funds arrive? How do people access them? Who is going to be able to ask them? Evictions notices are halted, but does that mean people aren\’t expected to pay rent? And the biggest question, above all else: how long is this going to last?

I caught Rep. Nguyen on the phone and asked. Below is a direct transcription of our interview.

I’m recording because I want to make sure I get everything you say accurately, because I don\’t want to misspeak. A lot of people are really anxious, so I\’m calling for clarity on some things as a lot of folks are still confused about what lies ahead for us in Atlanta and in Georgia. I am referring to a newsletter I received from you on Tues., March 17, in regards to the state of emergency here. There\’s an approved $100 million in emergency funding to address the pandemic. Is there any clarity on when people in the community who have lost their jobs — some businesses have closed permanently, some indefinitely, particularly in the restaurant industry — is there a timeline on when any of these funds might be seen or how people go about accessing them?

No. I actually just got off a call with the Georgia Restaurant Association, trying to find some support for restaurant workers. The governor yesterday asked the federal government for financial support for small businesses. So we have to wait for the federal government to approve that funding. It\’s very likely that the $100 million we approved is not going to be allocated to support small businesses. It\’s most likely going to be allocated to more eminent health care related things. But the governor did yesterday make a request for federal funds to support small businesses and the mayor also allocated funding to support small businesses. Yesterday she signed an executive order to do that and I believe it was $1.5 million that will be going to small businesses. It\’s unclear how the funds are going to be allocated. It\’s unclear how they\’ll prioritize, but there is a lot of concern that there\’s just not going to be enough funding to go around. And it\’s not just for small businesses, the concern of supporting the small businesses, but how small businesses are going to be able to pay their employees, especially restaurants who are now choosing to close or go to curbside only. So there are a number of things that the GRA has put forth terms of the ask and they range from things at the local level actually mandating the closure of restaurants. Because most restaurants are not going to be able to access any kind of insurance money that they have that might, they might have in place unless there is a mandate by the government. They\’re basically in this position where they\’re closing for public health reasons and because they want to protect their employees from getting sick, but they\’re closing without the assurance that they\’re going to have some support from their insurance policies. And without the assurance that they\’re going to have support in general from the federal, state, or local government. There\’s just simply not enough funding to go around and there\’s a lot of uncertainty and people that are paid paycheck to paycheck. I am worried for the hospitality industry as well as other workers.

A lot of businesses have closed, it seems, out of a moral obligation to protect employees and the people around them. Do you think that the businesses that are still open… do you think it\’s smart? I think there\’s a lot of confusion about how serious [COVID-19] is. Is it worth saving human lives versus the quality of lives that are in the immediate right now? Is that something that you\’re able to say?

Well, I wouldn\’t necessarily feel like I\’m in the position to make that judgment on whether or not anybody should or should not close. We know exactly what you just said. It is a public health risk and a public health issue. But it\’s also choosing between keeping people employed who may not be able to pay their rent, who may not be able to pay [for] food. I know that restaurants are in a very hard pressed situation, which is why we need the actual government to take the leadership and mandate the closures, because they should not be put into that position in the first place.

Agreed. What can we do as members of this community to support them or maybe urge the government to do that? Or is the GRA taking that role?

The GRA is taking the lead on it, but I think the more that the Mayor of Atlanta and the CEO of DeKalb hear from residents, the better. I just sent a letter over to the mayor this morning urging to mandate a closure of restaurants, and allow restaurants to move to just curbside or delivery along with some other asks from her. And I also had a call with one of the governor\’s leaders this morning as well. I\’m asking for some support for restaurant owners. I do think it is best that constituents continue to press upon our mayor and our CEO, because they have the power to do that. We do not need the guidance from the governor if he\’s unwilling to make that closure. But they certainly have it. They know that it\’s a decision that they need to be willing to make. We just haven\’t seen them make it yet.

On the medical side of things, do you have any idea when more tests will be available here in Georgia or what the status is on that?

They\’re increasing the number of tests per day, but I think it\’s very critical that the public understand that we will never be able to have enough tests to test everybody for this, period. Because the number of people who have been exposed to the virus, there\’s just no way that we\’re going to be able to test everybody. The recommendation has been for people to go ahead and say at home because of how highly contagious this virus is and because it\’s asymptomatic. Even if you don\’t feel sick, you may be a carrier and pass it on to somebody who has a compromised immune system, or somebody who is older, or somebody who is pregnant — those are all the high-risk people. At this time, the only people that are being administered the people who are already exhibiting symptoms and they also have to meet a certain criteria, even if they\’re exhibiting symptoms in order to be tested.

I know that people are very anxious about being tested, but if you\’re not exhibiting any symptoms, that is not something that we need to do. We\’re basically flooding the hospital system. We don\’t have enough supplies. Grady is already already strapped. Other doctors and other hospitals are saying they don\’t even have respirators, ventilators, masks, any of those things. And so the more that people adhere to staying at home, the better. I mean, it\’s literally … it\’s literally what we all need to do individually. The majority of the tests that have been given are positive. We know as of this afternoon 197 confirmed cases. The Georgia Department of Health is reporting one death, but there was just a piece released by the Albany Herald that said two people died in Albany at Phoebe Hospital. They\’re probably gonna be seeing more cases there, as well.

So to reiterate, what is the best thing that we can do as individuals right now to help to lessen the blow? And — if possible, I know everything is coping with the uncertainty of something we don\’t totally understand — how long do you think we\’ll be in this quarantine stage and is it going to get more strict?

The global trends and the trends across the states shows that things are going to get worse. And as we are seeing, um, all these things come down. I\’m seeing that governments are issuing stricter guidelines. The governor was pretty fast to close our schools, which I\’m grateful for. But, you know, in New York and in Seattle, where this has been going on for a while… New York just closed their schools two days ago. Seattle just closed their restaurants and bars. So I do think that we\’re going to see stricter measures. Athens Clark County actually tried to impose a curfew, but that did not pass their counsel.

Okay. So there\’s no way of telling how long? We can just expect to be an hunker down mode for a while?

Yeah. When we were on call with the mayor yesterday, she said, expect APS schools to be closed for the rest of the school year.

Okay. And parents will be homeschooling kids.

Yeah. Homeschool and virtual lessons.

How can we best prepare for what\’s to come, with what we know right now?

Really, I can not reiterate enough that people just need to stay at home if they\’re able to. There\’s a COVID hotline; if anybody feels sick, they need to call that hotline first. They do not need to go to the ER. They do not need to go to urgent care. They do not need to go to the hospital, because that increases the likelihood that they\’re going to expose other people. So the directive is to call the COVID hotline. Call your local provider before you do anything else, and they will help you assess the next steps. I think that\’s really critical. The other preparedness things is… you know, we\’re learning more and more so we don\’t know how long it lasts on surfaces. We don\’t know how long it lasts on paper. What we have been told thus far is the take-out model of food that people have been implementing is okay. So what a lot of restaurants have been doing from what I\’ve been reading is doing to go orders where they come outside and bring the food to you in your car. That way you\’re not entering into the restaurant space, and you\’re able to just do a food exchange. The recommendations are just wash your hands, sanitize and just continue to do that.

I am currently waiting on comment from the mayor\’s office. As far as the halting of evictions, is that for most of Atlanta? Does that mean people do not need to pay rent or not worry about rent? It\’s unclear on what that means for everybody.

The eviction notices?

Yes, the halting of eviction notices.

I think that people are still expected to pay rent, but in the case in which they\’re not able to pay rent and they become behind on it, then there are no evictions for that. The same with utilities. So Georgia Power, City of Atlanta, Department of Watershed, DeKalb Water — all of those entities have agreed not to cut off any services during this time. DeKalb has not issued the halting of evictions, but our delegation is getting ready to write the magistrate court and ask for that same request.

The moving of our primary — that\’s a good thing, right?

Yeah, it is a good thing. There\’s no reason anyone should be going out to a voting location right now to vote, especially our seniors. The one thing that we are concerned about is the Secretary of State is only issuing vote by mail — automatic vote by mail — for people who are 60 or older. But we believe they should be sending that to everybody. And we have no idea what it\’s gonna look like on May 19. The precaution and what we feel is important in terms of protecting everybody\’s right to vote is to go ahead and allow everybody to vote by absentee. The Secretary of State should be the people who are sending out the absentee ballots and should be putting postage on it. Our general assembly has been suspended and we will be going back in April 15 to make a vote on whether or not we extend the governor\’s executive powers. But we\’ll be working from home.

The vote for the executive powers for Kemp, does that depend on his performance and decisions?

Well, it will depend on whether or not we need it. Right? We don\’t know when we\’re going to be in a month. And we\’re still in crisis then. That assumption is we won\’t want to continue the state of emergency, but again, we don\’t know what it\’s gonna look like in a month. So we will see April 15.

We are currently waiting for official comment from Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms\’ office as well as from the GRA. We will continue to provide updates as this crisis develops.

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