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As commission mulls mandate, DeKalb to distribute 50,000 masks

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. DeKalb County is passing out thousands of the kits, which have masks and sanitizer, to residents to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. DeKalb County Board of Health is supporting the initiative. (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. DeKalb County is passing out thousands of the kits, which have masks and sanitizer, to residents to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. DeKalb County Board of Health is supporting the initiative. (Photo: Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

CEO worries ordinance could put struggling residents in a bind

DeKalb County employees will begin distribution of hand sanitizer and 50,000 masks to local residents this weekend — a move at least partly precipitated by the county's commission's consideration of a mandatory masking ordinance.

In a Friday afternoon press release, DeKalb CEO Michael Thurmond said the masks and sanitizer would be handed out “in economically disadvantaged communities that the DeKalb County Board of Health has identified as experiencing the highest number of COVID-19 infections.”

“Although I wholeheartedly support mask mandates that do not carry criminal penalties or fines,” Thurmond said, “my concern is that thousands of our residents will be forced to choose between purchasing a mask or purchasing food or other necessities.”

Commissioner Mereda Davis Johnson has led the push to put a mandatory masking ordinance in place in DeKalb, which has Georgia’s third-highest total of confirmed COVID-19 cases.

As written, Davis Johnson’s ordinance would require anyone above 8 years old to wear a mask in public places, with exceptions for things like outdoor exercise, driving, and people with underlying health conditions.

An initial violation would result in a written warning. Subsequent violations could result in fines of up to $250.

The full Board of Commissioners is expected to consider the ordinance — which would apply throughout unincorporated DeKalb — on Tuesday.

Several DeKalb County cities have also considered or already enacted their own masking ordinances.

Brookhaven Mayor John Ernst signed an executive order putting one in place on Thursday. Decatur's city commission approved an ordinance Friday morning. Doraville is expected to consider its own mandate on Monday.

Such mandates conflict with a statewide order from Gov. Brian Kemp that "strongly encourages" — but does not require — the use of masks, and bans local governments from enacting stricter measures to fight COVID-19.

But in recent days local governments have begun adopting their own measures anyway. The cities of Savannah, East Point and Atlanta were among the first to do so.

Kemp has called local mandates "unenforceable" but has not threatened legal action.

“We have to do something to protect the health and life of our citizens in DeKalb," Davis Johnson said this week. "So sometimes you have to make bold moves. ... And if it's challenged, we have to step up to the plate.”