Kemp bans cities, counties from mandating masks

Georgia governor extends coronavirus restrictions while encouraging use of face masks

Gov. Brian Kemp on Wednesday extended Georgia’s coronavirus restrictions while explicitly banning cities and counties from adopting rules requiring masks or other face coverings, a measure that could bolster the state’s case in a possible legal battle.

Kemp’s executive order — which was set to expire Wednesday evening — still encourages, rather than requires, Georgians to wear masks in public. The governor has called such a requirement “a bridge too far,” and his office has said local mandates are unenforceable.

The governor’s coronavirus orders have for months banned local governments from taking more restrictive or lenient steps than the state. But the new set of rules he signed on Wednesday specified for the first time that cities and counties can’t require the use of masks or other face coverings.

That could improve the state’s standing in a courtroom fight against a string of cities that have defied Kemp’s emergency order by requiring masks. Savannah led that charge earlier this month, and since then other cities including Atlanta, Athens and Augusta have followed suit.

The governor’s order also requires vulnerable people to shelter in place, restricts gatherings of more than 50 people, and mandates that restaurants and other businesses take numerous precautions.

Another significant change in the order, set to expire on July 31, is a rollback of transportation limitations for daycare centers. Just about all other restrictions that were in place at the start of the month remain intact.

“We continue to watch the data and the numbers,” Kemp said earlier this week. “We’ve got to learn to deal with it, and we’re encouraging people to wear masks and follow the guidance that we have.”

Hours before Kemp took action, his Republican counterpart in Alabama, Gov. Kay Ivey, announced a statewide mask requirement that will take effect Thursday. Meanwhile, Walmart and Sam’s Club said they would require shoppers to begin wearing masks Monday.

Also Wednesday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced on Twitter that New York will send 7,500 COVID-19 test kits, 30,000 pieces of personal protective equipment and 1,250 gallons of hand sanitizer to Atlanta by Friday. Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, who earlier this week sought the state’s help amid a mounting feud with Kemp, said she was grateful.

“My mother often says, ‘A friend, in need, is a friend indeed,’” she tweeted.

Georgia reported 3,871 new cases of the disease on Wednesday, the second-highest daily count to date, and 37 deaths. So far, 127,834 people have tested positive for COVID-19 in Georgia, more than double the number reported in mid-June, and 3,091 have died from it in the Peach State.

The rate of new tests that are positive for the disease is soaring, an indication that experts say suggests the spread of the disease — and not increased testing — is the culprit. During the week of May 24, state public health officials reported the rate of positive tests was about 6% over the course of seven days. Last week, the positivity rate was more than 13%, an Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis of state data shows.

Even though the new wave of COVID-19 patients tends to be younger and less sick, they are filling hospital beds at a rapid clip. Hospitalizations topped Georgia's prior peak in April after the Fourth of July weekend. Shares of open critical care beds in regions surrounding Athens, Dublin, Macon, Marietta, Savannah and Tifton have dipped into the single digits. Only one was left in Dublin, according to the most recent figures available.

Disease experts at Georgia Tech and elsewhere have warned that Georgia is running out of time to prevent surges of cases that have overwhelmed hospitals in Florida, Arizona and other states that eased restrictions. This month, more than 1,400 health care workers signed an open letter calling on Kemp to shut down bars and restaurants, ban indoor gatherings of more than 25 people, mandate masks, and free local governments to institute their own rules to halt the spread of the disease.

“It’s not too late to go back to the basics: mandatory masks, more restrictions on social distancing, freeing mayors to manage their local epidemics, and vastly expanding testing and contact tracing,” Dr. Melanie Thompson, principal investigator of the AIDS Research Consortium of Atlanta, said last week. “These are basic, but we haven’t come close to mastering them yet.”

Dr. Harry J. Heiman, a clinical associate professor at Georgia State University School of Public Health, said: “In the absence of aggressive action, it’s only going to get worse.”

AJC staff writer Greg Bluestein contributed to this article.