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Decatur approves face mask ordinance despite some contention

Decatur City Attorney Bryan Downs. Courtesy Wilson, Morton & Downs.
Decatur City Attorney Bryan Downs. Courtesy Wilson, Morton & Downs.

Decatur’s city commission unanimously (5-0) approved an ordinance Friday morning requiring the use of face masks within the city’s 4.2 square miles, particularly regarding indoor public spaces. The law was drafted by City Attorney Bryan Downs, who partly assimilated portions of ordinances adopted over the last week by Savannah, East Point, Atlanta and Athens (Brookhaven and Doraville have also adopted similar ordinances).

The crux of Decatur’s law reads: “All persons entering an establishment in the City of Decatur shall wear a facial covering or mask while inside such establishment. This requirement to wear a facial covering does not apply to religious establishments; however, the use of facial coverings is highly recommended during religious activity.”

Despite the unanimity there was contention from Commissioners Lesa Mayer and George Dusenbury. Both believed a lack of clarity in the clause stating masks weren’t required “during outdoor physical activity, provided the active person maintains a minimum of six feet from other people with whom they do not cohabitate at all times.”

Both believe in more durable language in delineating outdoor mask use, with Mayer particularly expressing disappointment. She and Dusenbury, however, weren’t alone. Judging from public comments over the past two days, there was a significant sentiment for the ordinance requiring fulltime mask wearing outdoors except in a car or during solitary exercise.

“I don’t think this is what the community is expecting or asked for,” Mayer said. “Something is better than nothing, but this is not strong enough. It doesn’t do enough to protect the community. We didn’t want something symbolic.”

During Friday’s virtual meeting Downs told the commission, “I understand what you’re saying. I am a perfectionist myself. But I don’t think we want to get too focused on specific sentences and words. The goal is to send a stronger message to provide a cover for retail [customers and employees].

“Now if we’re talking about taking people’s liberty away,” he added, “if we’re talking about putting them in jail, then yes, we would need more clarity in the language.”

While the goal, Downs said, is “voluntary compliance,” the ordinance states officers can issue a warning and subsequently issue penalties of “not more than $25 on the first offense, not more than $50 on the second offense, and not more than $100 on the third offense and any subsequent offenses.”

Downs doesn’t believe Decatur’s or the other new local laws are in conflict with Governor Brian Kemp’s June 29 statewide executive order that “strongly encourages” but doesn’t mandate face coverings.

He cites Kemp’s recent statewide “Wear a Mask Tour,” flying to seven Georgia cities to publically emphasize facial coverings.

He also points out that the Chief Justice of the Georgia Supreme Court has deemed in-person judicial proceedings require court employees and the public to wear masks.

Upon reconvening June 15 the Georgia General Assembly required mask wearing by all House members and staff while on Capitol grounds. Further, the Georgia Board of Regents has announced the University System require all faculty, staff, students, and visitors to wear an appropriate face covering while inside campus facilities/buildings.

“We may not quite agree on the precise language,” Downs told the AJC, “but in the end we all want people wearing masks at appropriate times.”

Decatur’s ordinance becomes effective 8 a.m. Saturday (July 11) through Aug. 17, or “until it is extended, rescinded, or amended by ordinance of the City Commission.”