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Health director gives OK to reopening Augusta meetings under tight restrictions



AUGUSTA, Ga. – With endorsement by the area’s chief of public health, the Augusta Commission might resume meeting in person next month, with strict limits on attendance by the public, while allowing parades remains up in the air.

East Central Health District Executive Director Stephen Goggans said he perused Administrator Odie Donald’s “Augusta Forward” reopening document and determined it was an “outstanding plan” for resuming meetings.

“I think the plan as it’s put out there would allow for safe in-person meetings,” Goggans said, at a Monday Augusta Commission workshop.

Infections have plummeted since a Jan. 13 peak, when Augusta was seeing as many as 1,100 new cases per week, he said. Today infections are down to less than 200 per week, but test positivity has seen “a little bit of an uptick in the last few weeks,” from below 5% to around 6.5%, he said.

Driving the uptick is the spread of COVID-19 variants, which make up more than 40% of new cases, he said.

Today approximately 15% of Richmond County residents have received both vaccine doses, while 18% have received at least one dose, he said. Goggans said the numbers are likely low because they omit vaccinations without address information.

Donald said the plan is to return to regular bimonthly meetings next month, if numbers permit, while committee meetings, held on the second and last Tuesdays of the month, will remain online only.

The plan calls for six feet between each gallery seat, reducing seating to 45, the plan said, but only a few seats are left after all elected officials and staff are accounted for, it said.

“Considering the general population of commissioners, mayor, administrative staff and directors/department heads, only four seats would remain for the general public,” it said.

Commissioners who weighed in Monday asked if any other materials such as sanitation stations were needed, whether attendees must wear masks and what to do about people still needing a vaccine.

Donald said the city has all the recommended equipment but deferred to the city law office about requiring masks be worn based on conflicts with state reopening rules.

Commissioner Francine Scott said there remain “people on the corner” who want a vaccine but can’t get an appointment.

Commissioner Catherine Smith McKnight, who has pushed since earlier this year to meet her colleagues in person – for the first time since she took office – for meetings, said she was pleased with the outcome. Donald said the city will revisit case levels after two months.

“It’s a happy day for me – at least we get to go back,” McKnight said.

The plan said Augusta departments and Richmond County agencies have had 437 total cases with the most, 176, in the sheriff’s office.

One agenda item, allowing a parade permit for the Cross Creek High School girls and boys and T.W. Josey High School girls basketball teams, was pulled from the agenda last week with no discussion by Mayor Pro Tem Bobby Williams, who conducted the Monday workshop in Mayor Hardie Davis’ absence.

No one asked Goggans about the matter, but it may return at the commission’s regular Tuesday meeting, Commissioner Jordan Johnson said. On the agenda is the decision on resuming meetings.

Commissioner John Clarke said he did not know why Williams pulled them item but suggested it might be because the players were included in Davis’ state-of-the-city address last week.