DeKalb CEO: County mask mandate never rescinded, still in place

CEO Michael Thurmond talks with Kroger customers while handing out masks and No Mask, No Service signs to businesses on Wesley Chapel Rd in Decatur, Saturday 25, 2020.   STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

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CEO Michael Thurmond talks with Kroger customers while handing out masks and No Mask, No Service signs to businesses on Wesley Chapel Rd in Decatur, Saturday 25, 2020. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Michael Thurmond says vaccines, though, are key to beating COVID

Savannah and Atlanta have made waves this week by reinstituting COVID-19 related mask mandates, but leaders in at least one Georgia county say their ordinance was never rescinded in the first place.

DeKalb CEO Michael Thurmond confirmed Thursday that the mask guidelines adopted by the county last July remain in effect.

Many residents began shedding their masks earlier this summer, following since-revised guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But the local law championed by Commissioner Mereda Davis Johnson still requires DeKalb residents and visitors over 8 years old to wear face coverings “when in any public place.”

There are exceptions for things like outdoor exercise, eating and drinking, and people with underlying health issues.

The county also included a “conscientious objector” clause to try and avoid a legal confrontation with Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, who at the time had issued an executive order explicitly banning local governments from imposing mask mandates.

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With the Delta variant driving new spikes of confirmed COVID-19 cases across the country, the CDC on Monday issued new guidance saying all individuals should wear masks in public, indoor spaces if they are in an area of substantial or high transmission.

All but a few Georgia counties fall into those categories, according to CDC data.

DeKalb is designated an area of high community transmission; a recent report from the DeKalb Board of Health showed a more than 280% increase in confirmed COVID-19 cases compared to the previous 14-day period.

And while Thurmond is glad DeKalb’s mask ordinance is still in place, he said it’s not his primary concern.

“Masks can mitigate the spread, but masks pale in comparison to how effective vaccinations are against the spread of the virus,” he said. “That’s where we have to focus our attention.”

Only about 45% of DeKalb residents are fully vaccinated, according to county data. About 50% had received at least one shot.

ExploreDeKalb offering $50 gift cards for vaccinations again this weekend

The county has renewed its focus on vaccinations in recent weeks and has seen some successes, including by offering $50 prepaid debit cards in exchange for shots. The county is offering the incentive at another event scheduled for this weekend.

Thurmond said Thursday he plans to continue to expand that program and other outreach initiatives, especially for the county’s Black and Latinx communities.

“Now you’re at the stage where you have to take the vaccine to the people,” the CEO said.

On Monday, even before the CDC updated its guidance, DeKalb Commissioner Ted Terry called on the county to put a “more stringent” mask mandate in place and urge private businesses to consider proof of vaccination for patrons where social distancing can’t be observed.

He’s also pushing for the county to “fully commit” to the vaccination incentive program — increasing gift cards amounts to $100 and allocating at least $5 million of American Rescue Plan funds for the initiative.

In a statement provided to the AJC, Terry called on all DeKalb residents to get vaccinated.

“We have been asking and encouraging politely, now we are demanding,” Terry wrote. “Yes we know you have your reasons, but those reasons do not outweigh the lives of our friends, family and neighbors. You must get vaccinated for the good of all DeKalb.”