DeKalb city keeps county’s last mask mandate for government buildings

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Decatur and other DeKalb cities have already dropped masking requirements

Clarkston is the last DeKalb County city to require masks inside public buildings to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

The county’s other 11 cities have repealed their mask mandate, let it expire or never had one to begin with. The Clarkston City Council considered repealing the city’s mask mandate during its Tuesday meeting, but they opted to limit it to only government buildings, such as city hall and the municipal courthouse. The city also recommends residents wear masks when in private businesses.

The mandate includes a $25 fine for violators, but the city’s police chief and city manager said that fine has never been enforced and won’t be in the future. However, Councilwoman Laura Hopkins said she wanted the city to require masks in places where unvaccinated residents might be required to come.

“I don’t want to send the message that we’re post-pandemic,” Hopkins said.

Most DeKalb cities began repealing their mask mandates in May, citing the dropping case numbers in the county and the relaxed guidelines for vaccinated groups by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Clarkston and Decatur were among the few holdouts who waited an extra month before taking action.

ExploreDeKalb cities grapple with mask mandates after new CDC guidelines

On June 21, Decatur allowed its mandate to expire, leaving Clarkston by itself. Decatur City Manager Andrea Arnold said during a City Commission meeting that they wanted to give children, ages 12 through 15, time to get vaccinated if they wish before the mandate ended. She added that the city’s business community was in support of letting it expire in June.

“At least 80% of the business owners did say that they were ready for the ordinance itself to expire — they could make their own rules within their businesses,” she said during the meeting.

Since mid-May, confirmed cases of COVID-19 have been at their lowest statewide levels since May 2020 and the onset of the pandemic, according to data compiled by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Clarkston city leaders expressed concern about the continued threat of coronavirus variants, such as the delta strain, for unvaccinated populations.

City Manager Robin Gomez said during Tuesday’s meeting that the mandate’s fine “was something the city was not and would not enforce” going forward, bringing up the question on what teeth the renewed mandate will carry. City Attorney Stephen Quinn added that the city might not have the legal authority to enact any form of mandate due to the state of emergency order by Gov. Brian Kemp.

“According to the governor, we never had the authority to do this kind of a thing anyway, so it’s been kind of a legal gray area,” Quinn said, adding that Kemp’s office has never challenged Clarkston’s mandate. Kemp’s office will lift Georgia’s state of emergency on Thursday, which had given him sweeping powers to respond to the pandemic since March 2020.

ExploreGeorgia governor to end public health state of emergency on July 1

Most DeKalb cities have transitioned to holding their city council meetings in-person at their city halls, while typically continuing to stream them virtually to provide easier public participation. Clarkston is one of the few cities that hasn’t made that transition yet, but Mayor Beverly Burks said the city aims to have in-person meetings by August.

Four councilmembers voted yes on Tuesday to the renewed mask mandate, while Councilman Ahmed Hassan abstained and Vice Mayor Awet Eyasu voted against it.

Eyasu said many members of the community have health-related reasons for not getting vaccinated — the U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommends abstaining from getting a COVID-19 vaccine only if you were allergic to a prior dose or are allergic to the vaccine’s ingredients, such as polysorbate. Eyasu said he took issue with the $25 fine’s inclusion, even if it isn’t enforced.