In split with state, Savannah's mayor requires face masks

Credit: Stephen B. Morton

Credit: Stephen B. Morton

Savannah on Tuesday became the first major city in Georgia to require the use of 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.

Savannah Mayor Van Johnson’s emergency order requires people to don masks when in many public places starting at 8 a.m. Wednesday. Violators will be offered a face covering before they are cited, Johnson said, and fined $500 if they flout the requirement.

“Frankly, and honestly, I do not believe we have any other choice,” Johnson said Tuesday at a briefing at Savannah City Hall, pointing to rising numbers of confirmed coronavirus cases in the coastal Georgia city. “The numbers speak for themselves. These are not the numbers Savannah wants or needs to break.”

The governor’s office didn’t comment on Johnson’s decision. If Kemp attempts to block Savannah’s order, it could set up a thorny legal and political battle. If he doesn’t, it could clear the way for Atlanta and other cities to take similar steps.

Kemp signed an executive order in April that imposed statewide restrictions that overrode the patchwork of restrictions that local governments adopted. That meant more stringent or lenient rules adopted by some cities or counties were nullified.

The latest extension of Kemp's statewide order, which was signed Monday, said residents are "strongly encouraged" but not required to use masks.

Georgia set a record last week with more than 11,000 new cases of the coronavirus. The state Department of Public Health on Tuesday reported 1,874 new cases of the coronavirus, approaching Sunday's single-day record of 2,225.

'A little harsh'

The mayor’s decision to require masks, which officials say appears to be the first of its kind in the state, brought a mixed reaction from local leaders. Some applauded the move, while others questioned whether a citywide order was necessary.

“Nobody wants this disease. But telling people where and when to wear the mask is a little harsh,” said Chatham County Commissioner Helen Stone, who is the president of the Savannah Area Republican Women.

“I hope that people take personal responsibility and have the courtesy to put on the masks, but I don’t like mandates of that nature,” she said. “I’m sad it’s come to this, that people won’t take it upon themselves to put them on.”

Pressed recently on whether he'll impose a requirement, Kemp said he believes a requirement to don face coverings is a “bridge too far,” and he expressed concern about a lack of widespread public support.

“There’s some people that just do not want to wear a mask. I’m sensitive to that from a political environment of having people buy into that and creating other issues out there,” he said. “But it’s definitely a good idea.”

He added that while he's “certainly not” planning to impose new restrictions immediately, he might be forced to do so if the pandemic worsens.

“As I've always said, we'll continue to keep all options on the table, whether it's masks or any of the other things we've done along the way,” the governor said.

Though he has not required the use of masks, Kemp has joined a chorus of other Republicans to aggressively urge Georgians to don them. It's a contrast from President Donald Trump, who is averse to wearing masks in public.

Kemp also plans to embark on a statewide fly-around tour Wednesday to push Georgians to wear face coverings and outline plans to distribute 3 million masks throughout the state.

'Extraordinary time'

Johnson's decision could encourage other cities to take further steps to limit the spread of the disease that could violate the statewide order. Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms is among the local officials who have called for stricter rules.

And some public health experts have pressed Kemp to rethink his position. Dr. Carlos del Rio, an Emory University infectious disease physician, is set to hold an online event Wednesday to urge political and business leaders to make masks mandatory.

Shortly before announcing the order, Johnson sent Kemp a letter warning that most of the thousands of visitors to Savannah aren't wearing face coverings and that “many of our businesses are closing unexpectedly due to infections of staff.”

“I believe that you are genuinely concerned about the welfare of the entire state and all of her citizens and I believe that this emergency order complements your previous orders to keep our citizens safe during this extraordinary time,” Johnson wrote.

In his address to Savannah residents, the mayor noted that Chatham County set recent records for the number of coronavirus cases logged over the past week and two weeks. There are now more than 1,300 confirmed instances of the disease in the county.

Johnson’s order requires people entering a commercial establishment in the city to wear a face covering or mask, though it exempts religious establishments and makes exceptions for people under 10 years old and those eating, drinking or smoking.

It also doesn’t cover people exercising while outside, so long as they’re socially distanced.

Staff writer Helena Oliviero contributed to this article.

WATCH: Savannah Mayor gives his weekly COVID-19 update.

Posted by WTOC-TV on Tuesday, June 30, 2020

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