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July 2020
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Staff Editorials

On wearing masks and time for government spending cuts

Wear a mask -- by choice 

We had an excellent idea from a Bent Tree reader last week suggesting this editorial. The gentleman called to say he had recently been in two Jasper restaurants and, while he didn’t want to single them out, he was bothered by the lack of any COVID prevention measures among staff and fellow patrons.

With so many changes, it is unclear what the rules are now. But it appears under the latest state orders that those restaurant employees who interact with the public should have a mask or face shield.

The caller said he didn’t want to complain. What he wanted is to go out to eat and feel safe. For business reasons, local establishments should want to do everything they can to make retirees feel safe -- better chance those in the higher risk group keep coming in.

Based on the latest news, fears of going out among the unmasked aren’t unfounded. According to the state health department, COVID cases are again rising quickly in Georgia. On June 30th, Georgia reported 79,417 confirmed cases of COVID, with 2,784 confirmed deaths. Pickens continues to be a lucky oasis with only 92 confirmed cases in this county and five deaths. Most all other nearby counties, except Fannin and Union, have seen higher caseloads.

The latest figures show that younger people are now regularly testing positive. If you are in this younger category and feel invincible to some stupid virus, you should still take precautions as a positive test for you could  mean time out of work or even a closed small business. Our county recreation department had to temporarily close facilities, as they had too many positive tests to field enough people to operate – even though  most of the employees were not feeling bad. 

Governor Brian Kemp saw that Georgia was among the first states to relax COVID rules, and the people here need to show that his faith was not misguided and force him into taking new measures.

If avoiding any worse problems, which could include additional deaths, closures or returning statewide restrictions (possibly even missing college or pro football season, dare we say it) is as simple as wearing a cheap mask in public, then by all means do so.

It’s not about taking your rights away, it’s about doing a small thing that may help others you come into contact with.

 

For local government: time to plan your cuts now

 

According to reports from the Gold Dome in Atlanta, the state economy wasn’t as badly devastated as first feared by COVID-19. But it most surely did have some impact and could worsen as federal money dwindles. The legislature implemented 10 percent budget cuts in many places. This wasn’t as severe as first feared; 14 percent cuts across the board were initially projected.

We strongly encourage local governments and schools to follow suit with pre-emptive cuts. We encourage planners to be aggressive early. They can always scale back cuts later. To wait until the final 2020 numbers are in before taking action is head-in-sand denialism. 

As an example, the city of Dawsonville announced in May they would trim $1 million from their current $7 million budget, citing the projected loss of revenue. Assuming that our neighbor with their sprawling outlet malls is more reliant on sales tax than us, we may not need a 14 percent pruning here. Following the state with their 10 percent cut sounds like good government to us.

What we would find inexcusable is for any elected official or government department head to enter the next budget cycle without concrete plans on how they can slash 10 percent and be ready to do so.

 

 

What we spend our time on: We encourage more laughing, less clothes washing

Much has been made of late regarding how we’ve spent our time during this year’s quarantine. 

Prior to shelter-at-home orders a U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics American Time Use Survey showed that on an average day, 96 percent of those age 15 and over engaged in some sort of leisure activity, such as watching TV, socializing or exercising. 

For those lucky enough to be 75 or over, they spent an average of 7.8 hours engaged in leisure activities everyday - more than any other age group. Unfortunately for the 25 to 44-year-olds, they spent just a  little over 4.0 hours in leisure and sports activities per day, a figure less than any other age group. 

With people laid off work and stuck at home during the coronavirus pandemic and  the stay-at-home orders that came with it, it’s likely more of us in the younger-than-75 age bracket got to spend a lot more time participating in those “leisure” activities for the first time since before kindergarten.

And quarantine has prompted many of us to find new and interesting ways to pass the time: Do-it-yourself projects around the house, baking sourdough bread, gardening, watching more television than normal, reading more books, or watching more birds. Basically, the quarantine forced us to return to a simpler life, similar to how people in the early 1900s must have lived. 

We may still have access to our cellphones and social media, but with places of social gathering shut down, the bulk of our days were spent in our homes with our families. This slower pace of life has given us all a chance to catch our breath and have the time to pay closer attention to those around us, take an evening stroll, or just hang out with the dog. 

According to the American Time Use Survey, watching TV was the activity that occupied most of our time (2.8 hours per day), in 2018. With the pandemic, that number has likely skyrocketed. Netflix subscriptions alone have soared during the pandemic, reaching  182.8 million subscribers with its streaming service, according to an April 21st article by The New York Times.

But aside from TV what have we really done with all this extra time? We sadly haven’t been watching sports.

The average lifespan is 75 years. Of that we spend 26 years sleeping and another 11 years watching TV, according to MSN News (Seems like a lot? But it runs up when you watch every episode of Game of Thrones in one month before that HBO trial subscription expires). Unfortunately, the folks at Newstrategist Research found we also spend three entire years of our life washing clothes.

Three years washing clothes? Twenty-six years sleeping?

To top that, we only spend 115 days out of our lives - a mere six minutes a day - laughing. And, according to a poll by Hilary Blinds, people spend five months of their lives complaining (that’s about eight minutes every day complaining about bad service). 

To make things seem even worse, when we were commuting to work we spent 38 hours annually in traffic, according to a study by Texas A&M. 

It’s estimated people spend 10 years total of their lives working (40 hours a week between the ages of 20 and 65). We spend another 4.4 years eating (or around 38,000 hours), another five years surfing the internet and one year just deciding what to wear.

Women spend 1.5 years of their life styling their hair.

A 2013 study found that on average, a US gamer over the age of 13 spends 6.3 hours a week playing video games. Imagine how that figure has likely skyrocketed during the quarantine.

Possibly the worst figure - aside from our lack of laughter - is the fact that the US Environmental Protection Agency found in a study that 93 percent of Americans’ lives are spent indoors, either inside a building or a car.

So whatever you’ve done during the quarantine and however you’ve spent your time, perhaps these figures will encourage you to:

A: Laugh more

B: Spend less time on your hair

C: Get off Netflix and spend some time outside. We live in the South and have the best opportunity to spend more of our time most of the year outdoors. Let’s do it.

 

What to say during a pandemic - Part II

By Angela Reinhardt

Staff writer

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I had other ideas for this editorial – a response to the executive order regarding social media or concern that a spouse or caregiver is currently not allowed to be with a hospitalized adult. But Monday morning after widespread and violent protests rocked a nation already teetering on the edge, those topics fell too short of the grave tone in the country. Inadequacy to fully express the situation was exactly how I felt in March when I wrote “What to say during a pandemic.” 

This year was marketed at its outset as hopeful, one with a clear “2020 vision” - but so far it looks more like a distorted, shattered mirror where nothing seems quite right. In just a few months our world has become unfamiliar, one that is frightening, unsettled, confusing, polarizing, and one that creates the possibility of a not-to-distant future that could look much different than our recent past. 

Waking up Saturday morning to the news of destructive, violent protests in Atlanta over George Floyd’s death was almost too much. How much more can this country - this world - take? People are scared, angry, and doing their best to hold it all together. It feels like everyone is on the verge of tears, with a collective lump swelling in our throats.  

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms addressed protests with a riveting impromptu speech. For months our leaders have been asking us to “Stay Home, Save Lives” because of COVID-19, but Bottoms was pleading for people to go home and stay there for a different reason.  

“This is not a protest. This is not in the spirit of Martin Luther King Jr. This is chaos,” she said. “A protest has a purpose...If you care about this city, then go home.”

Yes, it was chaos, and waking up to it was hard. It was so hard that I had to turn off the news, get off social media, go outside and mow the grass and weed my vegetable garden. Obviously, we need to be an informed public, and obviously people need to speak up and protest (peacefully) for causes they value - but from a mental health perspective it’s destructive to hear about death tolls, rising infection rates, racial violence, historic wildfires and global warming, impeachment trials, criminal sexual abuse, food shortages, and on and on non-stop in the vicious, never ending 24-hour news cycle. 

This weekend I was reminded of a talk local doctor Carl McCurdy gave mid-March about COVID-19 on Jasper First Baptist church’s live stream. After discussing the virus itself and safety precautions, Dr. McCurdy briefly touched on the dangers of prolonged social isolation as well as the need to curtail our daily dose of negativity. 

“I recommend people limiting their bad news to just one time a day,” he said, “and once you do that then spend the rest of the day reading, watching TV, having fun.” 

Like most of you I’m worried about our future. I’m worried about my kids and their fall semester at school. I’m worried about friends and family who are out of work. I’m worried because we seem to get more and more politically and racially divided - but we need to give ourselves a mental break sometimes. Put down the phone and remote do something that makes you happy, whether that be going out in nature, listening to music, working on a home or art project, or worshiping. It’s helping me cope for sure.

Like I said back in March, it doesn’t matter why you think we’re in the position we’re in, or if you lean far left or far right or somewhere in between politically, this is collective. 

I think deep down most people want peace (despite what we see on Facebook and television), and I believe we can reduce our general anxiety, worry, and fear with fewer pundits, fewer talking heads, and fewer armchair experts telling us the world is going to hell. Look outside your window and find something beautiful or seek it out. We’ll all be better because of it. 

Cancellation of JeepFest 2020, a tough call but necessary

By Dan Pool

Editor

Vice President of Sheriff’s Foundation

Last week the Sheriff’s Foundation made official what many had feared since we reported that JeepFest was “unlikely” to happen several weeks ago – Sheriff’s JeepFest will not happen in 2020.

The reaction on JeepFest social media  was quick, voluminous, and largely not supportive.

As a member of the board that oversees JeepFest, I wasn’t surprised that many people were upset. You take away someone’s vacation and a very fun event and people aren’t going to pat you on the back.

I am currently the vice-president of the board and have served on the board since the beginning of the event. I serve along with Shelley Cantrell, Mark Maddox, Adam Richards, and Sheriff Donnie Craig.

Much of the backlash online included speculation on why we “really” cancelled the event. Right off the bat, I want to say we made the decision. We weren’t told we couldn’t have it. Our cancellation wasn’t part of any larger conspiracy, not tied to any protests, and there was no “they” directing us on what to do. 

The no-go call  was made solely because of COVID concerns. JeepFest draws thousands of people from all over Georgia and from other states – Florida tags abound on the backs of Jeeps that week. With free admission to the general public there is no exact count of how many people stop by at some point to watch. We know that 2,340 Jeep owners registered for the event last year. 

Pickens’ COVID numbers, thus far, are blessedly low. This good fortune is nothing to take lightly. I got a glimpse of how things could have gone differently a week ago. I went to meet with the newspaper publisher in Cornelia, about an hour and half away, still in north Georgia. I knew something was different there when the publisher, Alan NeSmith, gave me directions of how to park in the rear of his building and come through a side door, so I wouldn’t have to go through their COVID barrier at the front.

When I got in, maintaining a safe distance from Alan, I mentioned that he was taking the COVID stuff pretty seriously. The lobby there had been closed for weeks. Here is the difference, Cornelia in Habersham County has a population of 45,800 and they have had 593 cases of COVID, 82 hospitalizations and 30 deaths compared to Pickens with a population of 33,530 and our 65 cases of COVID, 13 hospitalizations and four deaths. They had one particularly bad period where the virus got into an assisted living home and killed multiple people in a short time period. It’s true a lot of people die every year from the flu, but when you see something sweep through a senior living facility leaving numerous deaths in the wake, it’s different. Keep in mind, this isn’t some metro area, this is a place the other side of Dahlonega and there is no reason it couldn’t have been us.

With JeepFest, we certainly know the impact the event has on businesses with all the extra people here to dine and shop and we recognize the impact our grants have on local non-profits and programs and we know many people really enjoy getting their Jeeps muddy and riding the trails. We aren’t oblivious to any of that.

We weighed all those pros against what if we had the event and two weeks later COVID cases here spiked? We would draw the blame and rightfully so. Would people ever forgive and forget if our event was thought to have created a nasty spike in virus deaths?

Ultimately, we weren’t comfortable taking that risk and it was a unanimous vote with no dissent among the board. 

We understand the anger over the cancellation this year and want the community to understand our reasoning. It may not be the popular decision but we’ll stand by it as the right decision.

Elected officials can and should discuss important actions

During the Pickens GOP debates a couple weeks ago, school board member candidates were asked about former superintendent Dr. Carlton Wilson’s termination and what they would have done differently. There were some variations in answers, but candidates generally pointed to the perceived and very incorrect belief that elected officials are not legally able to discuss things that happen during executive session - even after the action is complete.

School board candidates who do not currently hold office said they weren’t sure how to comment because they were unclear why Wilson was let go. Board members who  were part of that decision-making process said they could not legally discuss personnel matters. It is true that personnel issues are one of a very few items elected officials can talk about behind closed doors. Others include pending litigation and property transaction issues. 

Public officials may have been advised that they can’t discuss executive sessions, but we want to set the record straight for both established, new, and incoming leaders – it might not make you popular with fellow board members, but if you feel it is in the best interest of the public to know what happened, yes, you can discuss it.  

David Hudson, longtime general counsel for the Georgia Press Association and a leading authority on the Georgia Open Meetings Act, addresses the issue in his article, “Officials Free to Speak Openly About What Happens in Closed Government Meetings,” which is published in its entirety on the facing page. Hudson doesn’t mince words when he says, “advice from someone (usually a lawyer representing the public entity)” that executive sessions can’t be discussed “…has no basis in fact or in law. Elected officials are subject only to the voters, and may not be disciplined or discharged from office by their fellow elected members.”

Hudson goes on to clear up a misunderstanding about a Georgia Code (O.C.G.A. 45-10-3) that establishes ethics standards for boards, commissions, and authorities. “It has provisions against the use of undisclosed public information for private gain,” but, “…None of its various provisions, however, would prevent elected or appointed officials from disclosing what occurred in a closed session if the official felt that it was in the public interest to make the disclosure.”   

He cites other Georgia Code as well as the “overriding constitutional principal for public service in Georgia” from the Georgia Constitution and concludes that, “There is no prohibition in Georgia law that would prevent such disclosure…The officer may create ill will with other members of the public agency, but that is a factor that the public officer will have to weigh against what he or she feels is an overriding duty to the public that he or she serves.”

In a recent email to Hudson regarding the issue, he reiterated that elected officials retain their First Amendment right to discuss executive session issues. He did note, however, that there is no way to force a board member to reveal discussions in a legally-closed meeting other than to press them about situations (such as the termination of Pickens’ former superintendent) in which there is compelling public interest.

Additionally, it’s important to note that Georgia law allows for - but does not require - executive sessions only under those very strict parameters of discussing personnel, real estate transactions, and litigation. A Covington News article explains that executive sessions are allowed under those circumstances, “if they feel public discussion would harm the public’s interest. Two examples would be discussing legal strategy in a pending lawsuit, or discussing how much a government is willing to pay for land before a formal offer is finalized.”

Elected officials, from this point on you can’t hide behind the “we can’t discuss executive sessions” argument. We can’t force you to talk, but legally you are able to if you feel it is in the public’s best interest.