Athens could follow Savannah and require face masks

April 2, 2020 Athens: Mayor Kelly Girtz films one of his public service video addresses by the North Oconee River in Dudley Park to encourage and inform local residents on Thursday, April 2, 2020, in Athens, where a mandatory shelter in place has been in effect long before many metro Atlanta towns took similar steps.   Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com
April 2, 2020 Athens: Mayor Kelly Girtz films one of his public service video addresses by the North Oconee River in Dudley Park to encourage and inform local residents on Thursday, April 2, 2020, in Athens, where a mandatory shelter in place has been in effect long before many metro Atlanta towns took similar steps. Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

A week after Savannah became the first Georgia city to mandate the use of face masks to contain the spread of the coronavirus, officials in Gov. Brian Kemp’s hometown of Athens-Clarke County are poised to consider a similar requirement.

The county commission is set to vote Tuesday on an ordinance requiring face coverings, a step that could come into conflict with a Kemp order that “strongly encourages” but does not mandate masks. It also bans local governments from enacting stricter or more lenient measures to fight the disease.

“It’s unfortunate that local governments must defy the governor to protect our constituents, but he leaves us no option,” said Commissioner Russell Edwards, who backs the proposal. “His refusal to mandate CDC guidelines for mask-wearing forces others to lead.”

Kemp has sidestepped questions about local mask mandates since Savannah became the first city in Georgia to require the use of masks last week with an order that threatens violators with a $500 fine if they flout the ordinance.

But he's called a statewide requirement a "bridge too far" and pursued a softer approach, including a "Wear A Mask" tour last week that touched down in seven Georgia cities over two days.

SAVANNAH, GA - June 30, 2020: A family wearing masks walk through one of Savannah's historic squares while other visitors eat on a bench near by. Savannah on Tuesday became the first major city in Georgia to require the use of face masks, setting up a potential showdown with Gov. Brian Kemp over whether local officials can take more sweeping steps than the state to contain the coronavirus. (AJC Photo/Stephen B. Morton)
SAVANNAH, GA - June 30, 2020: A family wearing masks walk through one of Savannah's historic squares while other visitors eat on a bench near by. Savannah on Tuesday became the first major city in Georgia to require the use of face masks, setting up a potential showdown with Gov. Brian Kemp over whether local officials can take more sweeping steps than the state to contain the coronavirus. (AJC Photo/Stephen B. Morton)

Credit: Stephen B. Morton

Credit: Stephen B. Morton

“We can disagree on how we go about solving the problem,” Kemp said at the Atlanta kickoff, where he warned the college football season could be imperiled if Georgians ignore the warnings. “We all agree especially right now it’s wise for people to wear a mask, especially when they’re out in a public setting.”

Savannah Mayor Van Johnson said last week he had no choice but to impose the restrictions as the city grapples with record-setting numbers of confirmed coronavirus cases and thousands of tourists who aren’t wearing masks.

While some mayors have ruled out a mandate as unenforceable, others have said they're closely monitoring Savannah's decision.

Many public health experts say said the evidence is clear that masks can prevent the spread of COVID-19. States and countries with mask mandates are seeing a slowdown in the infection rate.

But they also caution that simply recommending masks is not strong enough to stop the spread of the virus, urging that Georgians also practice social distancing and stay home when possible.

It wasn’t immediately clear how many citations have been issued in Savannah, though a police spokesman said a “heavy emphasis” is on encouraging voluntary compliance.

Officials in Athens enacted some of the most severe restrictions in the state to combat the coronavirus in late March, weeks before Kemp's statewide order. Edwards, the Athens commissioner, questioned whether Kemp intended to pick a fight with his hometown over a mask mandate.

“If Governor Kemp won’t defend his executive orders against local governments enacting stronger pandemic protections, then what purpose do his orders serve?”

Staff Writer Helena Oliviero contributed to this report

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