Georgia mayors to Gov. Kemp over new order banning mask directives: Nope
Several mayors said Thursday they will not rescind their local mask orders, and will go to court to defend them if necessary
Update, July 16, 2020: Gov. Brian Kemp has now filed a lawsuit against the City of Atlanta in an attempt to block its mask mandate.
By Jeff Amy and Ben Nadler
ATLANTA — Mayors in Atlanta and other Georgia cities deepened their defiance of Gov. Brian Kemp on Thursday, saying their requirements for people to wear face coverings will remain in place, even after the Republican governor explicitly forbade cities and counties from mandating masks.
Several mayors said Thursday they are ready to go to court to defend their orders.
I am not afraid of the city being sued and I'll put our policies up against anyone's, any day of the week," Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said Thursday during a video news conference, telling reporters the city's order is still in effect.
Officials in at least 15 Georgia cities and counties had ordered masks during the coronavirus pandemic, and many were angry at Kemp for swatting down their efforts.
Savannah Mayor Van Johnson, who wrote Wednesday night on Twitter that Kemp "doesn't give a damn about us," admitted Thursday that he had been "so angry" when he wrote the comments. But he said Kemp is "overstepping his authority" and citied multiple national retailers who had mandated masks in recent days.
"How can we take care of our local needs when our state ties our hands behind our back and then says 'Ignore the advice of experts?'" Johnson asked in a news conference, later saying "If you don't want to protect us, then allow us the opportunity to protect ourselves."
Kemp says he strongly supports mask-wearing to combat the spread of COVID-19 infections. He traveled the state this month to encourage face coverings. But he has maintained for weeks that cities and counties can't require masks in public places, saying local actions can't be more or less restrictive than his statewide orders.
That didn't stop local governments from enacting their own mandates, so Wednesday, in an otherwise routine renewal of rules governing business operations and ordering medically vulnerably people to stay home, Kemp made that prohibition explicit. He went so far as to say local governments could not order masks on their own property, which would include Atlanta's massive airport.
The first-term governor made no mention of the decision Thursday as he cut the ribbon on an expanded emergency room at Wellstar Kennestone Hospital in suburban Marietta, where everyone in sight was wearing a mask and the hospital was taking temperatures before people could enter. Kemp said hospital networks in Georgia have been thoughtful about expansion which will serve the state during current uncertain times and in the future. Kemp also signed some health care bills from the recent legislative session, but ignored questions shouted by reporters as he exited.
Although national health officials have called on people to use masks, President Donald Trump's administration has not issued any nationwide guidance. Twenty-five states and the District of Columbia now require masks.
Kemp's stance — not only shying away from a statewide order but trying to bar local governments from instituting their own — leaves him standing virtually alone. In the South, Republican governors in Tennessee, South Carolina and Florida have resisted statewide mandates but allow local jurisdictions to implement them. Republican governors in Alabama and Texas and Democrats in Kentucky, Louisiana and North Carolina have issued statewide mask requirements.
Some Georgia residents are caught in the crossfire. At Rosie's Cafe, across from the Mercedes-Benz Stadium where the Atlanta Falcons play, manager Mykle Osborne said the cafe offers masks to customers but does not force people to wear one.
"Some people are offended that we ask them to wear masks," the 40-year-old Osborne said. "I'm all for everyone putting a mask on. I think that will help."
Outside Zoo Atlanta, Latanya Grover of suburban Mableton said she wants local officials to be able to order residents to wear masks. The zoo requires people to wear them in enclosed spaces and was selling them for $1 at the entrance.
"I think it's important, just for the safety of the people around us," Grover said.
Thursday's numbers showed more than 2,800 people hospitalized statewide with the COVID-19 respiratory illness, the highest on record. The state reported that 84% of hospitals' critical beds were filled, although some hospitals say they have opened up more space.
Georgia overall had more than 131,000 confirmed infections and more than 3,100 deaths overall as of Thursday, although experts say many more people contract the illness but are never tested. For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms. Most recover, but some can become severely ill or die.
Johnson had announced Savannah would start fining businesses that did not comply, but penalties haven't begun.
Some business groups are supporting Kemp. Georgia Restaurant Association Executive Director Kelly Bremer said Thursday that Kemp has done a "remarkable job" in leading Georgia. She said a statewide mandate isn't appropriate considering Georgia's size and diversity. But she also said local rules would be confusing and businesses should make their own decisions about requiring customers to wear masks. A group of businesses are backing a voluntary compliance program called Georgia Safety Promise.
"For businesses to grapple with 535 different municipal ordinances and 159 different county ordinances is madness," Bremer said. "Having one set of guidelines is very important."