Georgia governor withdraws request for emergency injunction against Atlanta’s mask mandate

Lawsuit still pending against city's face covering requirement and other measures focused on the pandemic

Gov. Brian Kemp on Tuesday withdrew his request for an emergency injunction against Atlanta’s mask mandate and other measures focused on fighting the spread of COVID-19, while citing progress in his talks with Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms.

But Kemp’s lawsuit against the city remains alive as both sides differ over how to best to stop the spread of the highly contagious disease caused by the coronavirus.

“The governor and the mayor continue to make progress negotiating directly on the issues addressed in the lawsuit,” Kemp spokesman Cody Hall said.

More: Kemp cancels Tuesday hearing in legal feud with Bottoms

In responding to Kemp’s decision, Fulton County Superior Court Judge Jane Barwick reminded both sides they remain under her order to undergo mediation with the help of Senior Judge Cynthia Wright. Barwick had ordered them to meet for mediation Tuesday morning. Bottoms’ office had no immediate comment about what happened. The Georgia Attorney General’s Office, which is representing Kemp in the lawsuit, declined to comment.

Georgia is among 21 states with outbreaks serious enough be placed in the “red zone,” according to a new federal report obtained by The New York Times. Distributed to state officials by the White House Coronavirus Task Force, the report recommends that officials in Georgia “mandate use of masks in all current and evolving hotspots — optimally a statewide mandate.”

The governor, who has encouraged but not required masks, argues cities and counties are barred from enforcing rules that are more or less restrictive than his own. Kemp’s lawsuit also targets the city’s guidelines concerning the pandemic, including those that encouraged new limits on restaurants and other businesses for containing the disease.

As part of his request for an emergency injunction, Kemp asked the court to suspend the mayor’s executive orders and prevent her from “issuing press releases, or making statements to the press, that she has the authority to impose more or less restrictive measures” than him.

The city filed its court response Monday, saying Kemp’s legal challenge is prohibited by sovereign immunity, the legal doctrine that bars lawsuits against government officials. Atlanta’s attorneys added that blocking the mayor from talking to reporters or issuing press releases would violate the Constitution, saying “speech on public policy issues is a core free speech right that is entitled to the ‘broadest protection’ under the First Amendment.”

More than a dozen cities and counties have defied Kemp by adopting mask requirements, including Athens, Augusta and Savannah. Others have sought to avoid legal battles with the governor. On Monday, for example, Macon-Bibb County Mayor Robert Reichert vetoed an ordinance requiring face masks in public, saying he respects the “governor’s authority.”

“I truly believe we should do everything within our power to convince individuals to follow all preventative measures to slow the spread of COVID-19,” he wrote in a letter to the Macon-Bibb Commission. “But I believe we have gone as far as we can, legally, to get people to wear their masks, practice socially distancing, avoiding large groups, and more.”