Georgia governor enables businesses to reject COVID-19 mandates as hospitals overflow

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(ATLANTA) — Georgia businesses won’t have to comply with local COVID-19 measures like mask or vaccine mandates under a new executive order, as the state’s hospitals continue to be stretched to their limit.

Gov. Brian Kemp issued an executive order Thursday that will keep businesses from being forced to follow COVID-19 ordinances put in place by local jurisdictions. The Republican governor said the order was issued to protect recovering businesses from “another round of shutdowns.” It doesn’t prevent businesses from complying with local orders, but the ordinances won’t be enforced, he said.

“Local governments will not be able to force businesses to be the city’s mask police, the vaccine police or any other burdensome restriction that will only lead to employees being let go, revenue tanking and businesses closing their doors,” Kemp said during a press briefing announcing the order.

Several cities in Georgia have reinstated mask mandates amid rising COVID-19 cases. Last month, Atlanta issued a mandate requiring mask use in public indoor spaces, including private businesses. Nearby, Decatur issued a similar mandate, though businesses can opt out. Savannah has issued a mask mandate for some indoor public spaces, though it doesn’t include businesses.

The order comes as there is “substantial case incidence” of COVID-19 throughout counties in Georgia, according to the latest COVID-19 forecast from PolicyLab researchers at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

The number of available intensive care unit beds is also dwindling in the state. According to the latest data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, ICU capacity in Georgia is at 94%.

Northeast Georgia Health System’s hospital in Gainesville is overflowing with COVID-19 patients. Hospital officials confirmed with ABC News Thursday that as COVID-19 patients fill up beds, doctors have been treating some patients needing emergency care inside their ambulance while waiting for a bed to open up. The hospital has also set up a tent behind the emergency department for overflow patients.

Some hospitals in the Atlanta metro area are on diversion and are turning away ambulances when their emergency departments are full, hospital officials said.

On Thursday, doctors from some of the state’s largest hospital systems pleaded with people to get vaccinated as they’re being inundated with COVID-19 patients.

“Our hospitals are once again filling up, and they’re filling up with young people and old people and those with comorbidities who have not been vaccinated,” Dr. Danny Branstetter of Wellstar Health System said during a press briefing with doctors and officials from several metro Atlanta health systems. “We’re seeing this peak rise very, very quickly, and rising to match or exceed the peaks we saw in the winter.”

Over 92% of those hospitalized with COVID-19 are unvaccinated, Branstetter said.

Dr. James Fortenberry, the chief medical officer at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, told reporters the hospital is seeing a “significantly greater impact” on children during the surge of the highly contagious delta variant.

“Our teams are seeing more COVID-19-positive patients in our emergency departments, urgent care centers and hospitals than at any time in the pandemic,” Fortenberry said, noting that there were 31 patients across the system’s three hospitals with COVID-19 on Thursday. “Thankfully, only a small fraction of children who test positive for COVID-19 need to be hospitalized to treat their infection, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t experience illness, and what can be significant illness, and miss out on normal activities like school and sports.”

Fortenberry implored all teachers, staff, students and visitors at schools to follow recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics and wear masks regardless of vaccination status.

“We owe it to our kids to do everything that we can to protect them,” he said.

In Georgia, 47.4% of residents ages 12 and up are fully vaccinated, compared to 59.8% nationwide, according to CDC data.

Kemp has not issued any vaccine mandates for state employees, though he has closed state offices on Sept. 3 to encourage public employees to get the shot.

“We have three lifesaving vaccines widely available,” he said Thursday while urging people to speak with someone they trust about getting vaccinated.

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