Across Atlanta, response is mixed to mayor’s order mandating masks again

Urban Grind coffeeshop employees Byron Reid, left, and Hollyn Richards, second from left, wear masks as they help a customer purchase a beverage at the coffee shop in Atlanta. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal Constitution)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Urban Grind coffeeshop employees Byron Reid, left, and Hollyn Richards, second from left, wear masks as they help a customer purchase a beverage at the coffee shop in Atlanta. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal Constitution)

Less than 24 hours after Atlantans were told they once again must wear masks when indoors, it remained to be seen how easy it would be for residents to revert back to behaviors from months ago.

Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms signed an executive order Wednesday evening mandating anyone in the city of Atlanta to wear a mask indoors when out in public, whether or not they are vaccinated.

The order came in response to rising COVID-19 cases locally and statewide, in large part due to the highly contagious delta variant. It follows a recent directive from the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advising individuals to wear masks if they are in an area of substantial or high transmission. The CDC announcement was a reversal from previous federal guidelines that allowed fully vaccinated people to ditch their masks in public.

Every county in metro Atlanta is designated as an area of substantial or high transmission, according to CDC data.

The mayor’s order — which harkens back to rules first issued last summer as case numbers ballooned — applies to private businesses including grocery stores, offices, restaurants, shops, and salons.

Around the city on Thursday, businesses and residents were still adjusting to the change. Stores still had signs up proclaiming that masks are options for vaccinated people, and many shoppers went maskless.

“We are literally the ones breaking the news to our customers,” said Patrick Berry, the co-owner of Westview Corner Grocery in southwest Atlanta, which reinstated a mask requirement earlier this week. “As retail workers, we all feel like we’re the mask police, which is not a great feeling.”

A sign asks customers to wear a mask at the vintage clothing store Drugstore Atlanta in Little Five Points in Atlanta. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal Constitution)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

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Credit: Alyssa Pointer

At Urban Grind coffee shop in northwest Atlanta, owner Cassandra Ingram said she was quick to update the rules in her store after Bottoms’ order. All customers, vaccinated or unvaccinated, must now wear a mask inside.

If someone comes in without a mask, Ingram said, they will be allowed them to stay outside and an employee will bring them their drink.

“A small inconvenience temporarily is worth it to have a more comfortable and normal situation long-term,” she said.

Bottoms’ order does not apply to people eating or drinking, and those with a health condition that prevents them from wearing a face covering. Anyone who violates the rule should first be given a warning, and then faces a $25 penalty on the first offense and $50 on repeated offenses if they refuse to put on a mask, according to the order.

The mayor’s office, which announced the policy change in a press release Wednesday night, said Bottoms made the decision “given the alarming rise in COVID-19 cases in the state of Georgia and new CDC guidelines,” and after consulting with Dr. Carlos del Rio, the Fulton County Board of Health and other experts. Her office has not said how the order will be enforced.

‘Just along for the ride’

At the Target at Atlantic Station, roughly a third of the customers weren’t wearing masks Thursday afternoon.

On her way into the store, Rehmah Firoz, an incoming grad student at Georgia Tech, said she supports Bottoms’ reinstating the mandate. Firoz moved to Atlanta just days ago from Pakistan and said she has been wearing a mask even after getting the vaccine.

“I come from Pakistan and right across the border, we had India where this variant originated from, so we had really close experiences with how bad things were over there,” said Firoz, 27. “I wouldn’t want things to happen the same way anywhere around the world, so that’s why I’m OK with wearing a mask.”

Georgia Tech student Cade Hornsby, 22, has had to wear a mask to work for several months, but said he has enjoyed being able to go mask-free in buildings where it is allowed. While he wasn’t wearing a mask inside a Tech study building Thursday and would prefer to not have to wear one indoors, he isn’t opposed to the idea of putting it back on.

“Whatever people want to do is fine,” Hornsby said. “I’m just along for the ride.”

Customers at Drugstore Atlanta, a vintage clothing shop, wear masks as they look through racks of clothing at the store in Little Five Points. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal Constitution)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

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Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Across metro Atlanta, the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases have steadily risen in the last month, state data shows, and cases are now the highest they have been since March. Health experts say the highly contagious delta variant is driving much of the spread, especially among the unvaccinated.

Gov. Brian Kemp went to court last year to block Atlanta’s mask rules, but the lawsuit was dropped. Last month, he ended the public health state of emergency that gave him sweeping powers to enact or block local rules.

At the state Capitol Thursday, hundreds of people — mostly unmasked — packed the swearing-in ceremony of Verda Colvin to the Georgia Supreme Court. Kemp was among the officials not wearing a mask; Atlanta’s mask mandate doesn’t apply to the Capitol, a state building.

The governor told reporters Thursday he opposes the mask mandates issued in Atlanta and Savannah, which reinstated some mask requirements earlier this week.

“The city of Atlanta can’t keep up with violent crime right now. I know these officers damn well don’t have time to be writing tickets for not being masked up. I mean that is ridiculous, in my opinion. Georgians don’t need that,” said Kemp, who also urged Georgians to get vaccinated.

Bottoms hit back at that notion in a tweet, saying that Kemp’s strategy on crime and COVID is to pick a fight with her.

“Vaccinations are down and crime and COVID are up across GA,” Bottoms wrote. “He should stop trying to win an election by trashing Atlanta, the capital city of the state he leads.”

In DeKalb County, CEO Michael Thurmond said the public mask mandate adopted by the county last July remains in effect. The local law still requires residents and visitors over 8 years old to wear face coverings “when in any public place,” with some exceptions, though many DeKalb residents had begun shedding their masks after the CDC said vaccinated individuals could do so.

Staff reporters Greg Bluestein, Tyler Estep and Leon Stafford contributed to this report.