HIAWASSEE. Ga. – In recent days, FYN received a volume of reports from local citizens concerned with the surge of visitors from areas heavily afflicted with COVID-19. While Towns County is home to many part-time residents, several sweeps through the parking lot of the area’s lone grocery store on any given day or time confirmed a near 50/50 mix of local to out-of-state and metro-Atlanta license plates, with shoppers in search of food and supplies. Likewise, lodging accommodations are seeing a sharp spike in renters hoping to “shelter-in-place” away from urban environments. In an area that welcomes tourists with open arms, local residents are warning of potential repercussions in the midst of the pandemic.
In a Georgia county with the top concentration of senior citizens, the demographic most vulnerable to virus complications, some fear not only shortages but the evident health risks involved with travel. While Towns County remains free of a confirmed coronavirus case at the time of publication, health officials warn that it is a matter of when, not if, COVID-19 arrives.
In reaction to an FYN report from Chief Medical Officer David Rearick of Onecare who focused on the dire consequences that may be in store for Fannin and Union counties, Towns County residents weighed-in. “This is how we should be looking at it in Towns County, also based on the population and any people that have immersed themselves in our community to escape their own, only to bring it with them,” Kelley Denton wrote.
“I’m curious about something,” John Dills asked in a social media group on Sunday. “With the governor refusing to take any steps towards a quarantine, and tourists who don’t see the necessity of staying home, can our city and county officials do anything to stop the influx of travelers until this virus is under control?”
Georgia Governor Brian Kemp stated in a press conference last Thursday that the decision to close businesses or implement additional measures has been delegated to local officials.
Across the state border in nearby Graham County, N.C. officials are doing just that. In response to the growing number of COVID-19 cases in neighboring Cherokee County, lodging accommodations were ordered to close on March 23, and travel restrictions – allowing only property owners and those conducting legitimate business to enter its border – are scheduled to go into effect on March 27. For similar measures to take place in Georgia counties, a local declaration of emergency is the initial step in following suit. While Towns County officials have given no indication of enacting such at press time, FYN remains confident that local leaders are diligently monitoring the unfolding situation.
Last week, Towns County Commissioner Cliff Bradshaw stated that the county was in “phase one” of mitigation. “My department heads have been working on this for a couple of weeks for where we’re at right now, for these closings, how we’re handling it, how we’re handling our employees,” Bradshaw said. “If it gets worse, and it possibly could and we pray that it don’t, but if it gets worse and we get people in the county that’s affected with it and showing positive to the virus, we are working now – the department heads and myself – on the next phase.”
Towns County Emergency Management Agency stated on Monday that the issue has been documented with the State.
County officials continue to urge calm, discouraging citizens from engaging in online speculation.
FYN remains in remote contact with Towns County authorities on a continual basis, vowing to provide now-news updates throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
HIAWASSEE, Ga. – Elected and appointed officials from all Towns County, Hiawassee, and Young Harris government and emergency agencies, with the exception of Towns County Sheriff’s Office, gathered for a press briefing at the Towns County Courthouse, Tuesday, March 17, to assure citizens of the swift response to COVID-19.
“Information has been a key point in this whole thing, We still want to continue our stance, our request to the public to not spread things that aren’t credible,” Towns County Emergency Management Director Brandon Walls said. “If it doesn’t come from a very credible source – as in us, the CDC, the Georgia Department of Public Health – we want to continue to ask citizens, don’t spread it.” Walls explained how public speculation, especially on social media, can lead to widespread misinformation.
Dr. Jonathan Lawerence, the county’s volunteer EMS Medical Director, attended the briefing. Dr. Lawerence praised the measures that Towns County is implementing in response to the coronavirus outbreak.
“So this is like the phase one,” Commissioner Cliff Bradshaw said. “My department heads have been working on this for a couple of weeks for where we’re at right now, for these closings, how we’re handling it, how we’re handling our employees. If it gets worse, and it possibly could and we pray that it don’t, but if it gets worse and we get people in the county that’s affected with it and showing positive to the virus, we are working now – the department heads and myself – on the next phase. How will we do it? Will we close the courthouse? If we close the courthouse, how will we conduct business? Those are the things that we’re going to be working on after this meeting today and the rest of the week.” The commissioner assured that his office could operate remotely in a “worst-case scenario.”
Commissioner Bradshaw said that the county is in contact with state and federal agencies in “real-time” and informed that the Towns County website and Towns County Emergency Management Agency Facebook page will be continually updated with information and “potential and actual COVID-19 cases” in the immediate area.
Towns County EMS Director Ken Nicholson explained that the temperature of paramedics and EMTs are now taken at the start and end of each shift, along with describing the high-level of precautions taken to protect the health of patients and medical units. Towns County 911 Director Marty Roberts said that 911 callers are asked a series of screening questions prior to the arrival of first responders. Towns County Fire Chief Harold Copeland stated that firefighters have been instructed to respond singularly to medical calls to reduce the odds of a multi-quarantine should the virus be presumed or confirmed. A substantial amount of medical masks, gowns, and face shields were reported on hand for all departments.
Hiawassee Police Chief Paul Smith stated that during traffic stops, officers have been instructed to ask citizens to read their driver’s license number rather than physically exchange the information with law enforcement. Young Harris College Police Chief Ken Henderson offered to assist all county and city agencies as needed.
Hiawassee Mayor Liz Ordiales informed that the interior of Hiawassee City Hall is closed as a precautionary measure. Payments can be submitted through the on-site dropbox, however, or online. Young Harris Mayor Andrea Gibby said that Young Harris City Hall remains open at this time due to window partitioning in the building’s lobby.
Continue to follow FYN for now-news on COVID-19.