Athens Mayor Kelly Girtz, whose city adopted a mask mandate on July 7, said the rules were always meant to be more of a deterrent than a criminal penalty. He compared it to anti-littering statutes on the books.
“We don’t want to give a bunch of tickets to people because there’s overflowing trash. We just want people to be good neighbors,” said Girtz. “And the mask ordinance sets out to do that. We’ve learned a lot about how important masks are — that masks equal safety.”
A new executive order that Kemp signed on July 15 adds another wrinkle. It explicitly outlaws mask ordinances, prompting some police departments that might have otherwise enforced local restrictions to back off citing potential violators.
“We are pretty much in a holding pattern,” Union City Police Officer Jerome Turner said. “But we are expecting our residents and visitors to follow the city ordinance and the CDC guidelines for wearing masks.”
Union City, in south Fulton County, is among a number of municipalities that reported no mask citations. Others include Atlanta, Athens, Augusta-Richmond County, Rome and Savannah.
Likewise for the metro Atlanta suburbs of Avondale Estates, Brookhaven, Decatur, Doraville, Dunwoody and Fairburn. The police departments in East Point, College Park and the city of South Fulton didn’t respond to a request for details.
Atlanta Police Sgt. John Chafee said the department isn’t keeping track of verbal warnings, but no officers have written tickets.
More governments are fast joining the list. Macon-Bibb County recently approved a resolution requiring face coverings, as did the city of Clarkston. So did DeKalb County, though it included an exception for “conscientious objectors.”
Local officials are monitoring the legal feud between Bottoms and Kemp, which is headed for mediation. The mayor called Kemp last week to initiate talk of a settlement over the lawsuit, which contends cities can’t adopt more restrictive measures than the state.
‘Get past this'
Kemp filed the lawsuit shortly after Atlanta adopted its mask mandate as well as “phase one” economic restrictions that urge restaurants to halt dine-in services and encourage residents to stay home if possible.
The legal complaint contends that Atlanta’s regulations have sparked confusion because they conflict with Kemp’s statewide order, which has lifted a shelter-in-place advisory for most Georgia residents and allows businesses to reopen if they follow guidelines.
“This is about the lives and livelihoods of Georgians,” said Kemp, who has encouraged the use of masks but said he doesn’t believe a mandate would be effective.
Georgia Rep. Sandra Scott, D-Rex, (right) speaks with Cody Hall (left), press secretary for Gov. Brian Kemp, during a solidarity protest to show support for Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms at the Georgia State Capitol Building on Thursday, July 23, 2020. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)
“We cannot be afraid of this virus. To be smart and be scared of it, that’s a good thing. You should wear your mask. But we also have to learn to continue to operate.”
While the mayor has said Kemp “overstepped his bounds,” she has tried to tone down the angry back-and-forth between the two camps over the last few days. Both sides are set to negotiate before a 10 a.m. hearing on Tuesday.
Until an agreement is reached — or a judge rules — confusion among law enforcement agencies is likely to continue.
Avondale Estates City Manager Patrick Bryant said the governor’s order has rendered the DeKalb County town’s restrictions “null and void,” while Fairburn Police Deputy Chief Anthony Bazydlo said his agency is waiting on clarification before enforcing the order.
In Northwest Georgia, Rome’s assistant police chief, Debbie Burnett, lamented that civil infractions, such as not wearing a mask, are already difficult to enforce.
“I just wish everyone would wear a mask so we can get past this thing,” she said.