Georgia mayors defy governor by ordering residents to wear face masks

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Four cities are taking Gov. Brian Kemp's emergency coronavirus order a step further and requiring residents to wear masks.

Several mayors in Georgia have defied Gov. Brian Kemp's coronavirus emergency order, instituting face mask requirements in their cities to protect residents as coronavirus cases surge across the state.

On June 29, Kemp signed two executive orders extending through the state's original emergency order, issued back in March, through mid-August. One of the orders "strongly encouraged" residents to wear masks, but prevented localities from implementing policies that are stricter than those outlined by the governor.

On June 30, Savannah Mayor Van Johnson issued a face mask ordinance requiring their use ahead of the city's annual Fourth of July celebrations.

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"We resolved in Savannah to follow the science," Johnson said during a phone interview on July 7.

Savannah had a 200% increase in coronavirus cases from May to June, Johnson said, and he wanted to "make sure people would do the right thing to be safe" over the holiday weekend.

Under the Savannah ordinance, anyone not wearing a mask is offered one, free of charge. If the person still refuses to comply, they face a $500 fine.

Johnson's decision to implement the policy was a catalyst for other cities.

On July 7, both Athens and East Point instituted similar face mask policies, followed by Atlanta on Wednesday night.

In a phone interview on July 7, shortly before the Athens ordinance was issued, Mayor Kelly Girtz said he was not worried that Kemp would push back against the order, adding that the governor was already encouraging residents to wear a mask.

"Whatever the level of political discomfort there may have been some weeks ago, there's just this growing, and definitive, scientific and medical recognition [that wearing masks is] a safe posture," Girtz said.

Both Johnson and Girtz said they were enhancing Kemp's order, with Girtz saying Georgia law gives cities the flexibility to do so.

While Kemp refrained from any sort of pushback after the first three cities instituted face mask policies, his office spoke out after Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms rolled out her policy.

"Like all of the local mask mandates, Mayor Bottoms' order is unenforceable," Candice Broce, Kemp's spokesperson, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Thursday. "We continue to encourage Georgians to do the right thing and wear a mask voluntarily."

On Friday, Bottoms took her city’s policy a step further, announcing Atlanta would return to Phase 1 of reopening status, meaning residents would be asked to stay home except for essential travel.

Kemp again called the decision "non-binding and legally unenforceable," reiterating that "no local action can be more or less restrictive" than his executive order.

Despite the pushback, the governor's office has not taken any legal action against cities that have instituted policies that go further than Kemp's emergency order.

Kemp's office did not respond to an email on Monday asking about possible legal action in the future.

In the spring, Kemp rushed to reopen many businesses in Georgia despite concern from health experts who said it was too early to be making such a call.

Kemp allowed barbershops, nail salons, gyms, and bowling alleys to reopen on April 24 even though the coronavirus pandemic was not under control. Restaurants and theaters were allowed to open on April 27.

"I'm really worried about it," Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN's chief medical correspondent, said at the time. "We know that the virus is still out there. We know that it's a contagious virus."

Shortly after Kemp reopened his state, his approval ratings plummeted.

According to a poll conducted by several top universities, the number of people in Georgia who approved of Kemp's handling of the pandemic dropped from 53% in April to just 33% in May.

By late June, only 43% of Georgia residents approved of how he was handling the pandemic.

Cases in Georgia have been spiking in recent weeks. On Sunday, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that more than 3,000 Georgians had died from coronavirus since the pandemic started. Overall, the state had nearly 117,000 confirmed cases.

Asked how his mask policy worked over the holiday weekend, Savannah mayor Johnson said it would take a few weeks before the data comes in.

"We resolve to keep the faith and follow the science," he reiterated.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.