COVINGTON, Ga. — Newton’s governing body is requiring anyone older than age 8 to wear face coverings or masks in public to protect themselves from COVID-19.
They also voted for temporary zoning ordinance changes to help local churches open more quickly to Newton County students needing Wi-Fi connections for virtual learning during the school year beginning next month.
The face coverings ordinance is set to take effect tonight, Aug. 19, at midnight and only applies in unincorporated areas of Newton County outside cities’ corporate limits.
It follows Gov. Brian Kemp’s recent executive order permitting local governments with high rates of the disease to enact their own face covering requirements. If Newton commissioners take no further action, the county ordinance will be repealed on Oct. 31 or when Kemp's executive order ends — now set for Aug. 31.
However, the numerous exemptions Newton commissioners included in the ordinance Tuesday, Aug. 18, effectively limited the requirement to publicly-owned spaces many county residents may only visit sparingly.
Commissioner Stan Edwards said it also includes a series of exemptions that made it almost unenforceable.
“I don’t know where you’re going to have to wear one, looking at this list,” he said. “There are so many places you don’t have to (wear masks), you have to describe where you have to.”
The ordinance requires masks to be worn in any county parks or buildings, such as the county administration building in downtown Covington, but not on state or federal property.
In addition, 14 exemptions were listed in the ordinance including any residential properties owned or leased; private property where the owner does not consent to enforcement of the ordinance; public safety workers; medical professionals; those who object for religious, ethical or health reasons; and others — such as when applying makeup or getting a haircut.
It also exempted those who were practicing social distancing when it was “both possible and being actively practiced.”
“There are enough exemptions available that … people can say, ‘I can be responsible and socially distant but if I can’t do that I know I need to wear a mask.,’” said Commissioner Nancy Schulz.
The board voted after hearing the latest statistics on COVID-19 cases in the county from Dr. Audrey Arona, director of the Gwinnett Rockdale Newton Health Departments.
Kemp’s order stated any county with confirmed cases of more than 100 could approve a mask requirement, the ordinance noted.
Arona, who spoke by phone to the board, said while the prevalence of the disease had slightly decreased statewide in recent weeks, Newton County’s confirmed cases in the past 14 days had increased from 346 to 370 per 100,000 population.
The overall rate of positive cases increased from 11.8% to 12.4% in one week in Newton County while the statewide rate had dropped from 11% to 9.8% in the same tie period, Arona said.
In addition, the rate of those entering emergency departments for the disease had decreased 0.5% statewide (5.3% to 4.8%) but increased in Newton County from 3.8% to 4.1%, Arona said.
“We know that all counties in Georgia have widespread community transmission,” Arona said.
“But looking at the 14-day case rate and positivity in that period of time can give you a kind of sense of whether you’re improving or not — and Newton County today sits at a higher level than prior,” she said.
County attorney Sam VanVolkenburgh said the ordinance would not affect the county school district’s orders for mask usage on its properties.
Those voting at county polling locations — either on public or private property — also were exempted.
He said the ordinance would not require masks if using the county election office as a polling place, but would require it elsewhere in the county administration building.
Enforcement would include a written warning on first offense and up to a $50 fine on subsequent offenses, the ordinance stated.
Commissioners voted 4-1 to approve the ordinance that only applies to areas of Newton County outside the corporate limits of Covington, Mansfield, Newborn, Oxford and Porterdale.
Schulz and Commissioners Demond Mason, J.C. Henderson and Ronnie Cowan voted for it and Edwards voted against it.
“I fully support wearing masks but I do not support mandating masks,” Edwards said. “We’re saying we don’t trust our citizens to do what’s right.”
Cowan said he hoped the ordinance’s impact would be reduction of the spread of the disease in Newton County.
“It’s reasonable to me. I think this goes beyond the mandates and everything,” he said. “It’s a safety issue.”
In a related action, commissioners voted to waive zoning permit requirements for churches opening new child care facilities so they can provide digital learning locations for students after the county school year begins next month.
The board of commissioners voted unanimously for a resolution to temporarily waive requirements that churches secure conditional use permits before opening schools or day care centers in unincorporated Newton County.
VanVolkenburgh told commissioners the temporary zoning waiver will not affect requirements for church-operated schools and daycares to comply with other state and local laws governing such facilities.
The action was in response to the Newton County School System’s recent ruling that all students attend classes online rather than in school buildings beginning Sept. 8 because of safety concerns around the transmission of the COVID-19 virus.
The county government requires a variety of entities to have conditional use permits and meet specific conditions before operating.
Applicants seeking such permits now must apply, wait up to 90 days and attend public hearings in front of both the planning commission and board of commissioners before the board gives its approval.
Churches themselves are allowed to operate under many zoning conditions in unincorporated Newton County. However, they must receive conditional use permits requiring fencing and outdoor recreation space, among other items, if they also operate child care facilities.
The county commission’s resolution cited the recent statewide and local emergency declarations concerning the COVID-19 pandemic and the reaction of many school systems — such as Newton County’s — not to allow in-person teaching.
“There is an unprecedented need for student digital learning spaces, internet access and supervision resources, and a recognized hardship on working families who struggle to balance the demands of employment with the supervision of children engaging in remote digital learning,” the resolution stated.
It suspends requirements that places of worship satisfy zoning conditions to add temporary school and child care services if they are in areas zoned for residential uses.
The board of commissioners had learned some churches were “willing and able” to offer everything from internet access and work spaces to “nutritional support” for students and families, the resolution stated.
In addition, “strict compliance” with the permit requirement “prevents, hinders and delays necessary action in coping (with) the COVID-19 emergency” and the permit process “may be lengthy.”
The commission’s action allows temporary operation of school and child care facilities and encourages those churches to “take reasonable steps to minimize any adverse impacts” such as traffic congestion on residential streets.
However, churches will be required to receive the permits again to operate child care and school facilities “upon the expiration and nonrenewal of the declared state and local public health emergencies,” the resolution stated.