In Decatur, mask mandate may fall before masks do

For a group of residents and workers who traveled to Decatur Square to enjoy a quiet Monday lunch, they all had at least one thing in common — they still carried a mask.

Decatur enforces the metro area’s last mask mandate for private businesses following Friday’s new guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC said most people can ditch their face coverings when inside most places, prompting Atlanta and multiple school districts — including Decatur’s — to drop their longstanding mask policies.

Decatur leaders will meet Wednesday to discuss repealing their policy as well, but there’s still some hesitant to join the crowd and hang up their masks.

“I think that’s a little irresponsible,” Angela Lawson told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution as she ate outside Monday. “I’m sure they’re various reasons as to why they chose to go that route. But I think if you’re concerned about the children, then you don’t lift the mandate. Not yet.”

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For most of the past two years, Decatur residents and visitors have been required to wear a face covering when shopping or dining, lest they face a potential $50 fine. The policy, which has allowed businesses to opt-out since last August, hasn’t sparked much controversy and hasn’t prompted a single citation to date. But city leaders showed interest last week in ending the policy.

Then the CDC issued its new guidelines, likely ensuring the city’s mandate will end soon.

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

If the policy ends, some businesses might still require employees and customers to wear masks.

“As mask mandates are removed, we will probably follow that example as well,” George Breeden, a manager at Decatur Makers said. He added that the larger events at the business could still recommend mask-wearing among attendees.

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After peaking in late December, COVID-19 cases have continued to drop throughout metro Atlanta. According to the latest data from the DeKalb County Board of Health, confirmed infections dropped by more than 57% during the first two weeks of February.

Most of Decatur is in the 30030 zip code, which underwent a 51% drop during that time frame, slightly less than the average for the county. Roughly 3% of the county’s confirmed cases came from that zip code, while the most infections were in the 30058 zip code area, which including Lithonia, the northern part of Stonecrest and a swath of unincorporated southeast DeKalb.

Decatur has been among the most strict when it comes to COVID-19 policies, implementing a vaccine mandate for new city employees. City Manager Andrea Arnold said 87% of full-time city staffers are fully vaccinated, well above the county’s 58% and the state’s 55%.

Decatur City Schools, which makes policy decisions separate from the city government, has also been quick to require employees and students to get vaccinated and continue wearing masks. These policies did prompt several debates among parents and teachers, but some still feel like they’re necessary protections.

“Well it would be good in an ideal world, all the kids would be vaccinated,“ Stan Tullos, another Decatur Square visitor, said Monday. “... And the teachers would be vaccinated, and so nobody would have to worry about masks.”

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Lawson wants Decatur to stick with masks longer, calling the actions by other governments and the school districts hasty.

“I think that if it’s lifted, then it gives the illusion that everything’s good,” she said.

The Decatur City Commission will hold a special-called meeting Wednesday to decide whether to extend their mask mandate.