DeKalb, local cities with mask mandates react to Kemp’s latest order

DeKalb County CEO Michael Thurmond hands COVID-19 care kits out to residents at Big Lots parking lot on Candler Road in Decatur on Saturday, May 9, 2020. (Photo: Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
DeKalb County CEO Michael Thurmond hands COVID-19 care kits out to residents at Big Lots parking lot on Candler Road in Decatur on Saturday, May 9, 2020. (Photo: Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

DeKalb County and at least six local cities recently mandated the wearing of masks in public places. The ordinances defied what was, at the time, a general prohibition on municipalities adopting coronavirus-related restrictions more stringent than those outlined by Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp.

The legal questions were already there.

But Kemp upped the ante even further Wednesday, issuing a new executive order that includes a section explicitly banning local governments from requiring the use of face coverings.

Predictably, the early reaction from DeKalb and its mask-mandating cities — who make up a fair share of the local Georgia governments that had put requirements in place — was a mix of disappointment, defiance and uncertainty.

Commissioner Mereda Davis Johnson championed DeKalb County’s ordinance, which was approved by her colleagues Tuesday.

“With the rate of COVID-19 infections and deaths in Georgia on the increase, I’m alarmed, outraged and saddened that Gov. Kemp is using his power to stop local officials from doing what he should have done long ago, which is to require that people wear a mask when in public,” Davis Johnson told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “From the White House to the Governor’s Mansion there is no leadership on this issue.”

She said DeKalb’s ordinance — which also includes a sizable education component — will “remain on the books.” But while the county commission approved the ordinance, it doesn’t go into effect until it’s signed by DeKalb CEO Michael Thurmond.

Thurmond said early Thursday that he had been prepared to sign the mandate. But with Kemp’s latest order, he needs more time “to understand what are the implications, and what options will the county have at this point.”

“It’s really a sad day, when the political imperative trumps the medical advice,” Thurmond said.

Avondale Estates, Brookhaven, Decatur, Doraville and Dunwoody all put their own mask mandates in place this week or last. So did Atlanta, which is partly in DeKalb.

A spokesman for Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said her order “remains in effect, as science and data will continue to drive the city’s decisions.”

In Decatur, City Manager Andrea Arnold said the city wasn’t yet prepared to comment on its path forward.

Further north in Dunwoody, Mayor Lynn Deutsch wrote on Twitter that she was “incredibly sad for my community and Georgia.”

“Sorry that the Governor has chosen to politicize your health,” she tweeted.

Officials in Doraville decried Kemp’s order as well. In a press release, Mayor Joseph Geierman said the city will “continue to encourage all of our residents and visitors to keep others safe” by wearing masks.

“At a time when cases of COVID-19 are spiraling out of control and some people have to wait hours to get a test and weeks to get a result, this new executive order will only result in more people getting sick,” Mayor Joseph Geierman said in a press release. “In Doraville, we’re listening to the experts. We know that wearing masks works and that it works best when everyone is wearing one.”

Kemp has encouraged Georgians to wear masks, but called local ordinances “unenforceable” and mandates in general “a bridge too far.” His new, more explicit executive order could improve the state’s standing should a courtroom fight between the state and local governments emerge.

Kemp’s stance has support from at least one DeKalb County mayor.

Tucker Mayor Frank Auman said Thursday that making masks more available, enforcing existing requirements and promoting a positive message about their usage will be more effective than any government requirement.

”The point is, we all need to be wearing masks,” he wrote on Facebook. “The second point is that we will get more people wearing masks using the three steps outlined here ... than we ever would with a mandate.”

Brookhaven Mayor John Ernst, meanwhile, said Thursday that arguing about the legality of such ordinances was “counter-productive at this point.” But he encouraged people to continue wearing face coverings and urged residents to respect the decisions of business owners who choose to require them.

“We all have to remember that we are neighbors and we will have to live with each other long after this pandemic abates,” Ernst, who signed an executive order mandating masks last week, said. “So let’s be nice to one another and wear the damn masks.”