East Point becomes first city in Fulton to require masks

The East Point City Council met Monday, July 6, 2020. At the virtual meeting, council members passed a law requiring people to wear masks as a way to slow the spread of COVID-19.

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The East Point City Council met Monday, July 6, 2020. At the virtual meeting, council members passed a law requiring people to wear masks as a way to slow the spread of COVID-19.

The East Point City Council on Monday night approved a new law requiring patrons and employees inside businesses to wear masks as a way of slowing COVID-19 spread.

Mayor Deana Holiday Ingraham said the Southside city of 35,000 residents is the first in Fulton County to require masks in situations where people who don’t live together can come into contact — including in restaurants, salons and grocery stores.

The penalty is a $75 fine. If workers aren’t wearing masks, both the business and the employee are subject to $75 fines. Children under age 2 are exempt. The law begins Thursday, but fines won’t be enforced until Monday.

Ingraham said she drew inspiration and language in the law from Savannah Mayor Van Johnson's emergency order last week requiring masks. Savannah was the first city in Georgia to do so.

As The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported at the time, Savannah's decision was a departure from Gov. Brian Kemp's position and set the stage for moves like East Point just made.

In April, Kemp signed an executive order blocking local governments from creating laws stricter that statewide rules, erasing many ordinances from city/county elected officials.

READ | Savannah mask mandate takes effect, putting Kemp in tricky spot

As reported by the AJC, more than 1,400 healthcare workers penned an open letter asking Kemp to close bars and restaurants, ban indoor gatherings of more than 25 people, mandate masks and let local governments institute their own rules. Kemp's extended order last week didn't require masks, and he has avoided answering questions about the disparity.

Ingraham said she knew East Point had to do something after watching all that transpire.

“We’re not talking about politics, we’re talking about whether people live,” she said. “I just don’t feel like we have the luxury or ability not to take action.”

She told the AJC on Tuesday that the city has had 52 new cases over the last 14 days, which she said is the highest increase of cases they’ve had since data has been collected.

When asked about the possibility of being admonished by the state, Ingraham said she felt their ordinance was legal.

“The fact that the Governor has chosen not to act suggests that there is no conflict,” she said.

Ingraham said other Southside cities seem interested in making a law of their own, including College Park and Hapeville.

Nearby cities are scrambling to get the law on the books. South Fulton and Fairburn both have specially called meetings planned for Wednesday to discussion mandatory mask ordinances, according to agendas posted online.

“When there is no action taken, you’ll see more cities doing it,” she said.

READ | Kemp warns college football is 'tall task' if Georgians don't don masks

Fulton County Commission Chairman Robb Pitts said Monday that all he can do is encourage residents to wear masks because all but 7.5 miles of Fulton are inside city boundaries, a result of the cityhood movement of the 2000s that sent communities forming cities to separate themselves from county services

“While I am not empowered to mandate the use of facial coverings across Fulton County, I am convinced that at this juncture it is an absolute necessity to do so. It is the wise thing to do, smart thing to do, and the moral thing to do,” Pitts said.

As for enforcement of the East Point law, Ingraham said city police will tell business owners about the new requirements, but police will rely on citizen tips to crack down.

She said swift action is needed in East Point, which has a higher population of elderly black residents — which scientists say are disproportionately harmed by the virus — than other parts of the county.

Stephanie Gordon Nanette Saucier were the only two council members to vote against the ordinance. Both were against fining businesses. Gordon said she had just received a copy of the law, so she wanted to review it and have time to compare it to other cities. Saucier said the ordinance punishes people who can’t afford a mask.

But Ingraham said she was willing to take the heat.

“If I’m going to take the chance on anything, I’m going to take the chance on lives,” she said.

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Gov. Brian Kemp didn’t rule out taking legal action to block Savannah’s new mask mandate but said Wednesday that Georgians shouldn’t need a legal requirement to wear face coverings to contain the spread of the coronavirus.