In the days after a pastor unknowingly spread COVID-19 at two funerals in Albany early this year, Gov. Brian Kemp looked to curb further spread of the virus. He issued a stay-at-home order, ordered the closure of some businesses and implored Georgians to avoid large funerals.
The outbreak spurred Georgia health officials to ban events of more than 50 people unless attendees practiced social distancing. But less than a month after urging Georgians to follow his advice, Kemp started attending funerals, memorial services and public viewings in ways that were at odds with his administration’s own guidelines, a Georgia Health News investigation found.
Since early May, Kemp has attended at least nine funerals, memorial services and public viewings, according to travel logs obtained through an open records request. The events were held to honor police officers, civil rights leaders and other public figures. Just last week, as COVID-19 spread at record levels, Kemp spoke at the funeral of a young political operative and family friend who died unexpectedly.
Some of the gatherings — including one attended by over 1,000 people — violated the governor’s own executive orders that require social distancing and limit large gatherings, GHN found. Most of the events Kemp attended were considered high-risk for spreading COVID-19, according to guidelines from the CDC.
Governor just one of many officials nationally
Kemp’s attendance at these events exemplifies a broader nationwide pattern of public officials of both parties flouting their own pandemic guidelines. California Gov. Gavin Newsom went to a friend’s birthday party attended by at least a dozen people at a three-star Michelin restaurant. The mayors of Austin, San Francisco, Chicago, and Washington, D.C., have also faced scrutiny for not obeying their guidance to the public about COVID-19 precautions.
Three public health experts told GHN that Kemp’s attendance stands in stark contrast to his calls for the public to grieve in a safe manner. With Georgia battling record levels of COVID-19, the public health experts said the governor’s behavior sends the troubling message that Georgians shouldn’t follow the state’s COVID-19 rules.
“Imagine I told you about the dangers of smoking, and the next time you come to see me, I’m standing outside having a cigarette,” said Dr. Harry Heiman, clinical associate professor of health policy and behavior sciences at Georgia State University. “If the governor is going to ask the citizens of Georgia to be personally responsible for their behavior, he needs to be responsible for his behavior.”
Kemp did not directly respond to the news organization’s questions about attendance at these events. In a statement, Cody Hall, Kemp’s communications director, said the governor “routinely followed public health recommendations” at all of the events. When presented with evidence that showed Kemp’s attendance was at odds with his administration’s guidelines, Hall directed GHN to review the governor’s executive orders, but did not provide further clarification.
“Memorial services and funerals attended by the Kemp family for family members and great Georgians were done in accordance with public health guidance,” Hall said.
A fallen officer’s massive funeral
The week after Labor Day, Kemp attended a memorial service for Capt. Stan Elrod, a game warden for the Georgia Department of Natural Resources (DNR), who was fatally struck by a car. Scores of law enforcement officers traveled to a large auditorium in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. A senior DNR official required wardens paying their respects to wear dress uniforms and submit to a temperature check, but did not mandate masks.
Over 1,000 people attended the memorial service, including 300 law enforcement personnel from seven different states, according to DNR records obtained through an open records request. Video footage live-streamed by Elrod’s church shows Kemp, who’s wearing a mask, exiting the crowded auditorium where many officers are not social distancing or wearing masks. Kemp’s COVID-19 executive order prohibits gatherings of over 50 people unless they can remain at least six feet apart.
DNR spokesperson Josh Hildebrandt said “the department took great care to protect” its employees. A spokesperson for Kemp, whose administrate has ultimate authority over the DNR, did not respond to specific questions about the memorial service.
The Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH), which also answers to the governor, said Elrod’s memorial service did not lead to a COVID-19 outbreak. But Dr. Mark Ebell, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Georgia, said the CDC estimates that Georgia has four undetected COVID-19 cases for every confirmed one. He calculates that a 49 percent chance exists for at least one person to be infected in a group of 50 Georgians.
“A large unmasked indoor event with 1,000 persons of any kind is a terrible idea,” Ebell said. “I certainly wouldn’t want my legacy to be the illness or death of a friend or loved one.”
One of the riskiest activities
In a recent New York Times survey, 700 epidemiologists ranked attending a funeral as the second-riskiest activity during the pandemic. (The riskiest activity was eating indoors at a restaurant.) The National Funeral Directors Association recommends funerals be kept to immediate family and close friends. But health department officials in Georgia have left it up to each funeral home to decide if stricter protocols are needed.
Kemp has caught flak for headlining crowded political rallies, including one where he was exposed to COVID-19 and was forced to quarantine. So far, he has avoided scrutiny for flouting his own rules in honoring the dead. Over the past six months, Georgia public health officials have confirmed that 10 Georgia COVID-19 outbreaks of at least two or more confirmed cases originated from spread at funerals, according to records obtained by GHN. The outbreaks occurred in two metro Atlanta counties — DeKalb and Gwinnett — and seven other counties across the state.
Kemp, a Republican, attended public viewings for U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) and civil rights icon Rev. C.T. Vivian that exceeded 50 people gathered in close proximity. He was joined by a host of Democratic officials, including state Rep. Calvin Smyre, at the viewings. Photos of both viewings — taken by the governor’s photographer and journalists covering the event — show the lawmakers and other attendees gathered without remaining six feet apart.
Many hold online, delayed funerals to defer risks
As officials like Kemp have continued attending large funerals, other Georgians have held smaller funerals for loved ones who died, and offered live-streamed services.
A survey conducted by the National Funeral Directors Association found that half of its members across the county had seen families delay a memorial service due to COVID-19, and experienced increased cremation rates due to the pandemic. But pandemic restrictions have limited the “personal touch” of saying goodbye to loved ones in person, NFDA spokeswoman Ellen Wynn McBrayer told GHN earlier this year.
Kemp also attended events to memorialize Georgia luminaries such as former presidential candidate Herman Cain and evangelist Ravi Zacharias, as well as other law enforcement officers, according to his travel logs. Video and photos from four of the services show the governor not adhering to his administration’s guidelines on social distancing at events.
Hall, Kemp’s communications director, insisted the governor has complied with social distancing guidelines at the viewings and services.
“The governor was honored to accept invitations to honor the life and legacy of two titans of the civil rights movement,” Hall said in a statement. “The first family was also honored to pay their respects to the lives of several of our fallen law enforcement heroes – and their families – who put themselves in harm’s way each and every day to keep our communities safe.”
‘We can’t afford to send mixed messages’
Georgia has now entered a critical juncture of the pandemic. Front-line health workers have started receiving vaccine doses. But with the vaccine program still in its early stages, COVID-19 cases have skyrocketed to unprecedented levels. Just this week, Georgia set a new record of COVID patients being hospitalized.
On Dec. 10, the day Georgia reported a record-setting number of new COVID-19 cases, Kemp and his family attended the indoor funeral of Harrison Deal, an aide to U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R-Ga.). Deal, who had been dating one of Kemp’s daughters, died in a car crash at age 20 in early December.
Video footage of the memorial service shows Kemp delivering remarks about his daughter’s boyfriend from a pulpit, where he stood socially distanced from the rest of the crowd. It also shows an audience of Deal’s relatives and friends sitting close to each other inside First Baptist Church Statesboro.
Heiman says the pandemic has forced all Georgians to “renegotiate what’s reasonable and what’s safe and appropriate” regarding their public grieving. But Atlanta physician Dr. Melanie Thompson believes that Kemp’s choices to keep attending indoor funerals — despite his own executive order — carries consequences far greater than personally contracting the virus.
“By flouting his own executive orders, he’s not setting an example for other people,” Thompson told GHN. “When we’re seeing a surge in infections, and seeing our hospital systems stressed, overcrowded, and on diversion; we can’t afford to send mixed messages.”
This story available through a news partnership with Georgia Health News, an independent, nonprofit news organization.