The shelter-in-place and business closure orders issued by local cities in response to the coronavirus pandemic are increasingly politicized along familiar Georgia lines: rural/urban, Democratic/Republican and state/local.

Some local cities and Democratic state legislators have been pushing Republican Gov. Brian Kemp to issue a statewide shelter-in-place order. Kemp has issued some broad orders — including a statewide shuttering of bars and nightclubs — but otherwise declined, saying it should be up to local control. But his chief of staff ignited controversy by blasting such orders on social media as “overreacting” by governments with “judgment clouded by power” — comments that did not go over well with leaders in local cities.

“Keep in mind, Brookhaven provides direct public services 24/7. We are not some state or federal entity holding a bunch of conference calls and worrying about how their supporters are going to respond to closing restaurants,” said Brookhaven Mayor John Ernst in response. “As mayor, I do not even have a chief of staff. Our residents and businesses are seeking answers and want to see action. They are worried.”

Brookhaven Mayor John Ernst.

In the background is national controversy over the handling of the pandemic by President Donald Trump, a Republican, and the varying approaches of governors and mayors across the country.

Two local political science professors say the tensions can’t be simplified into pure partisanship. It’s more about the general worldviews that inform how various leaders try to strike today’s balance between reducing the impact on the healthcare system and reducing the impact on the economy.

“There is this tension between public health versus economic perservation,” said Andra Gillespie of Emory University, and some of that means Democrats and Republicans weighing them differently in an era where ideology “increasingly correlated highly with party.”

Broadly speaking, Gillespie said, Republicans could be expected to be more “pro-business” and Democrats more focused on “scientific experts.” But she also cautioned against oversimplifying, noting that officials affiliated with both parties have supported the local emergency orders.

Joseph Knippenberg of Brookhaven’s Oglethorpe University says he thinks differing conditions in urban and rural areas during the pandemic is a bigger driver of the political differences, as well as the personalities of individual leaders. Those factors are bigger than the “slight” partisan differences, he said, which lack a “bright line” between them but still have effect as worldviews.

Joseph Knippenberg, a professor of politics at Oglethorpe University.

“I think there is an ideological difference there inasmuch as Republicans, at least officially, are more committed to local authority and solutions decided by the lowest level of government possible. And Democrats being…much more inclined to national and one-size-fits-all solutions,” said Knippenberg. “I think that’s kind of an ideological reflex of both parties.

“But I think it does also depend on the temperament of the political partisans involved,” he added. He noted as one example that another Republican governor, Mike DeWine of Ohio, issued the sort of statewide shelter-in-place order that Kemp has declined here. And at the local level, Knippenberg said, individual mayors may take bolder or more restrained positions depending on how secure they feel from political challengers.

“John Ernst was just re-elected,” said Knippenberg, a longtime resident of the Brookhaven area. “He didn’t have a terribly plausible opponent. He feels pretty confident.”

Leaders respond to ‘overreach’ comments

Some local leaders were not shy about criticizing the March 28 Facebook comments from Tim Fleming, Kemp’s chief of staff.

Reposting a story from the conservative news and polling site RealClearPolitics, Fleming blamed “the media and some in the medical profession” for “doomsday models” of the pandemic, contrasting with the state’s experts and “common-sense approach.”

“This in turn has resulted in people panicking and local governments across our state overreacting,” Fleming wrote. “Unfortunately, judgment is often clouded by power. As a result of their overreach, many small businesses will struggle and some will not reopen. Thousands in our service industry are being put out of work and families are facing much uncertainty. Local governments have now begun to cherry-pick what businesses will remain open.”

The cities of Atlanta and Sandy Springs did not respond to requests for comment. But Sandy Springs City Councilmember Andy Bauman weighed in with two Facebook posts, calling Fleming’s comments a “head-scratcher” and “an unforced error and unnecessary distraction.”

Sandy Springs City Councilmember Andy Bauman. (Special)

“Even with local governments being left to making these incredibly difficult decisions, is it too much to ask for some consistency (within and) out of the governor’s office?” wrote Bauman. “C’mon ladies and gentlemen, let’s all get on the same page. Time’s a wastin’.”

“Brookhaven stands by its decisions on emergency actions,” said Mayor Ernst. “In an emergency situation that has no boundaries, a city with less than 3% of the region’s population is expecting regional, state, and national leadership. It is clear that local governments are more nimble and flexible in responding to the needs of the community.”

Dunwoody Mayor Lynn Deutsch did not respond directly to Fleming’s comments, but repeated the call for a statewide order.

“I continue to believe that a statewide or regional approach, led by Gov. Kemp, is the most effective way to protect the public,” said Deutsch. “Absent that, I have been in constant contact with leaders in DeKalb County and the cities that share our borders to develop some unifying guidelines.”

Meanwhile, in the bigger picture, Ernst and Bauman had some praise for state responses.

“The inept national response is not very reassuring,” said Ernst. “However, I glad to see the state and national government now fully engaged in this unprecedented public health emergency.”

And Bauman said on Facebook that “the state has provided help to local governments. And more will be needed.”

Political perspectives

The call in Atlanta and north suburban cities for a statewide order have some political dimensions. Many local state legislative districts shifted to Democratic representation in recent years. Among the several local Democrats calling for a statewide order are state Sen. Jen Jordan and state Reps. Scott Holcomb and Josh McLaurin. One factor in the concern was a self-quarantine the entire General Assembly membership found itself in when a Republican state senator attended votes while sick with what turned out to be COVID-19.

But the concerns are far from purely partisan. Among the officials calling for a statewide order was House Speaker David Ralston, a Republican.

Partisan factors are even harder to define in local governments, where municipal offices are officially nonpartisan in a state where voters don’t register by party. Atlanta and Brookhaven have mayors well known as affiliated with Democrats and were among the first cities to declare shelter-in-place orders. Sandy Springs, whose mayor, Rusty Paul, is a former state Republican Party chairman and former National Republican Committee member, has taken a more restrained and nuanced approach, shutting down certain types of businesses but otherwise asking residents to voluntarily shelter in place under threat of a formal order if necessary.

But in all of those cities, the City Council includes members affiliated with other parties and political philosophies as well.

Knippenberg says in the broad sense, he sees the political difference as a “more situational urban/rural divide.” He said a call for a uniform order in the metro area, where county and city lines are virtually unnoticeable, makes sense, while people in rural areas may socially distance themselves more easily. The question for leaders, he said is, “…why should there be a one-size-fits-all solution?”

Andra Gillespie, a professor of political science at Emory University.

“We’ve seen in public opinion data that there are certainly partisan differences in how people are interpreting President Trump’s handling of the crisis,” said Gillespie.

But she pointed to a recent survey from the Public Religion Research Institute that found little statistical difference between Democrats and Republicans in how much they reported altering their activities in response to the pandemic.

For elected officials, the calculus may be more practical about the risks and benefits of various approaches to the crisis, especially as elections come later this year, Gillespie said. Returning to normal business life too soon could be a disaster, while a successful reduction in the spread of the virus could make the shutdowns look like an overreaction that hit the economy, she said.

“There will be mistakes,” said Gillespie. “But if it looks like the decision-makers were making good-faith decisions and that they were actually kind of weighing evidence and it looks like they’re caring about people, I think there will probably be a lot of forbearance.”

Knippenberg noted something all officials likely have in common: a desire to not “normalize crisis governance.” He noted that even the most stringent shelter-in-place orders are largely unenforceable in practical terms except on businesses; the intent is to set new social standards in the hopes people will voluntarily comply. That’s different from the approach in places like Wuhan, China, where the pandemic first struck and the government contained the virus through strict mass quarantines and surveillance tracking of individuals. Kemp’s ability to issue a statewide stay-at-home order is rooted in broad emergency powers he recently gained that are virtually limitless and specifically include such measures as commandeering private property — provisions he also has yet to use.

“We pay a price for the fact that we’re not China. And I am still kind of OK with paying that price,” said Knippenberg. “I don’t want to have such an overwhelming hand of the state resting on me — that kind of oppressive capacity always available — because it’s inevitably going to be abused.”

John Ruch

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.