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This story was updated at 3:51 p.m on March 23, 2020, with more information.

Elected officials in Georgia's Catoosa, Chattooga, Walker and Whitfield counties are banning social gatherings of 10 people or more, while also prohibiting on-site consumption of food or drinks at restaurants, bars or similar establishments.

As of noon Monday, the Georgia Department of Health announced there are 772 confirmed cases of the coronavirus in the state and 25 deaths reported. A Dalton Public Schools teacher was recently diagnosed with COVID-19.

The cities of Dalton, Tunnel Hill, Varnell and Cohutta declared a state of emergency and order to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

Dalton Mayor David Pennington apologized during Monday's emergency city council meeting for calling dine-in restaurant health concerns "hysteria" and acknowledged his city, the state and country is facing an uphill battle.

"This is going to get worse for the foreseeable future and then it will hit a decline," Pennington told the Times Free Press. "For now we urge people to obey the order itself. Stay at home and work from there if you can. Also be careful around people that are at risk. ... We all need to exercise caution and be safe."

The new orders limit gatherings of 10 or more, including religious services, theatres, flea markets, gyms and fitness centers, city/county parks, yard sales and funerals. There will also be restricted visitation at nursing homes, retirement homes, long-term care and assisted living facilities.

Restaurants, bars and other food establishments are only to be open to the public for drive-through, pick-up and carry out. Licensed restaurants or bars can sell unopened, sealed containers of beer and wine for take-out consumption off premises.

"We hope our restaurants will choose to continue servicing customers during this unprecedented crisis by utilizing drive-thru, curbside pickup, carryout and/or deliver options," Walker County Commissioner Shannon Whitfield said in a news release. "For eating establishments licensed to serve alcohol, we are also relaxing rules that might have prevented them providing additional menu items."

Cafeterias in licensed medical facilities and nursing homes are exempted from this order but are encouraged to use extreme caution.

The order in Dalton, Tunnell Hill, Varnell and Cohutta goes into effect at 5 p.m. March 23 and expires April 13 unless extended by further action.

The order in Fort Oglethorpe, Ringgold and all of Chattooga County goes into effect at 6 p.m. March 23 and expires April 23. Walker County's emergency order begins at midnight Monday.

Manufacturing businesses remain open for the time being. Shaw Industries, among others, hopes to be able to check employee's temperatures upon arriving to work. A Shaw plant in Cartersville was temporarily closed recently to an employee testing positive for the coronavirus.

For manufacturing industries to close down it would require an order by the governor, Pennington said.

The Catoosa County Commissioners approved two resolutions during Monday's meeting that were drafted to help families and local businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The first measure waives penalties, interest and late fees associated with vehicle tag and tax payments. The resolution is effective between March 13 and the date the local emergency declaration is lifted.

A second resolution allows Catoosa County restaurants and bars to continue operating with take-out and delivery services only, while restricting service inside premises. It also prohibits public gatherings of 10 or more people at county parks, with the exception of trails and tracks.

"We encourage all residents to follow public health guidelines of social distancing and frequent hand washing that can help protect us from the spread of the coronavirus ... today's resolution will help our community meet the challenge we face," Catoosa County Commission Chairman Steve Henry said. "At the same time, we want to do everything we can to keep people working and to support our local businesses through adjustments that allow for their continued service."

Contact Patrick MacCoon at pmaccoon@timesfreepres.com.

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