Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms issued a mandate late Wednesday night requiring people in the city to wear masks in public to prevent the spread of COVID-19, a move that follows a number of other local governments that are openly defying Gov. Brian Kemp.
So far, Kemp has encouraged the use of masks, but not required them, and has said local municipalities can not create stronger provisions than those that are in his emergency order.
Bottoms’ decision is a policy reversal. She said as recently as this week that the city couldn’t force people to wear masks because it isn’t mandated under state law — or in a Kemp executive order.
The city's order:
- Prohibits gatherings of more than 10 persons on city of Atlanta property;
- Calls for all persons (age 10 and older) within the territorial jurisdiction of the City of Atlanta and Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, to wear a mask or a cloth face covering over their nose and mouth;
- Does not impede the operation of any businesses, establishments, corporations, non-profit corporations.
Related: More details of the Atlanta face-mask order
In an Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s editorial board meeting on Wednesday, Bottoms said she feels secure establishing a mask requirement after Kemp took no action against other Georgia cities that did so.
Savannah was the first to establish a mask ordinance last week. The cities of East Point and Athens passed their own ordinances Tuesday.
“The governor has allowed them to stand,” Bottoms said. “So we are going to follow suit.
“My understanding is that I will be able to enforce it in a way that we enforce it like any other city policy.”
Details on potential penalties for non-compliance were not available at press time.
Kemp would have to sue the local governments to prevent them from enforcing the mask requirement, according to Harvey Newman, Professor Emeritus in Georgia State University’s Department of Public Management and Policy.
But he would be on good legal standing if he chose to do so, Newman said.
“Cities are creatures of the state,” Newman said. “State policy always trumps local policy.”
A Kemp spokeswoman did not return a voice message Wednesday seeking comment.
Kemp has called a statewide requirement on masks a “bridge too far” and pursued a softer approach, including a “Wear A Mask” tour last week that touched down in seven Georgia cities over two days. The governor has frequently warned that college football season could be imperiled if his calls are ignored.
On a conference call with local officials Tuesday, Kemp urged them to use social media and access to news media outlets to encourage residents to voluntarily don coverings.
He didn’t threaten legal action.
“We all agree that masks are good and can help stop the spread,” Kemp said.“We all know that social distancing makes it hard for the virus to travel. We agree that handwashing can limit exposure. So instead of mandates, I’m asking you to join me in raising awareness.”
Credit: Stephen B. Morton
Credit: Stephen B. Morton
Experts: Masks are key to safely reopening businesses
Bottoms' announcement occurs as Georgia and many other states have seen a resurgence in COVID-19 infections, and many public health experts say that the evidence is clear that masks prevent the spread of the disease.
The masks are a key aspect of states reopening businesses safely to avoid another financially painful lock-down, experts said. States and countries with mask mandates are seeing a slowdown in the infection rate.
Last week, Emory University experts talked about seeing the impact of making masks required in public spaces.
“We’ve learned at our own hospital that when we strongly encouraged [masks] we still saw community spread,” Dr. Jonathan Lewin, CEO of Emory Healthcare said. “When we required masks, we saw our infection rates within our workforce plummet.”
Meanwhile, Dr. Howard Koh, a professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of public health, is pushing for a national mask mandate as COVID-19 cases soar, and hospitalizations rise.
“In usual times, states handle the public health crises that affect their residents,” said Koh. “But these are not usual times and we have learned with COVID-19, it does not respect city and state borders and the trends are very alarming right now.”
The University of Washington, which has been using models to predict COVID-19 deaths, estimated Tuesday that there will be more than 200,000 additional deaths by November.
But the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) has also projected that the number would drop by about 45,000, if 95 percent of Americans wore masks in public.
“We don’t have a cure and we don’t have a vaccine yet and until we have a vaccine, masks are the best vaccine,” Koh said.
‘This is something easy I can do’
On a blazing hot afternoon, a majority of people at the Midtown Place Shopping plaza on Ponce de Leon in Atlanta were wearing masks. But it was far from universal.
“This should have happened a long time ago,” said Allison Kytta, who is 32 and a flight attendant. She is currently taking a leave of absence and hopes to start working again in the coming weeks. “We all kind of fell into a complacency and we are at the point now where it’s proven to be necessary.”
Laverne Ballard, a 44-year-old teacher who lives in Atlanta, supports mask wearing but doesn’t think it should necessarily be mandatory. She said some people have trouble breathing through masks.
She also worries about the cost of masks, and said she would like to see businesses provide them for customers. But she said she’ll keep wearing hers.
“It’s a necessary evil,” Ballard said. “The reality is we are in a pandemic and people are dying. This is something easy I can do.”
» COMPLETE COVERAGE: CORONAVIRUS
Bottoms clarifies timeline of her COVID-19 tests
Bottoms on Monday announced on Twitter that she has tested positive for COVID-19. It was one day after a press conference attended by several city officials and the family of an 8-year-old girl shot to death July 4.
During the AJC’s editorial board meeting, Bottoms provided a clearer timeline for her testing.
The mayor said she and her family were tested on June 30, but didn’t get those test results until well after Sunday’s press conference.
Bottoms said she had displayed no symptoms, but became concerned over the weekend because her husband slept more than usual.
So she and her family took another test on Monday. Bottoms, her husband, and one of her children received positive test results that same day.
On Tuesday, she received the results from the June 30 test, showing that one of her children who had no symptoms was positive. Bottoms said she would have quarantined herself if she had that information sooner.
“We would have all quarantined,” the mayor said. “That’s my frustration with the testing. We can’t tell people and encourage people to go out and get tested and then they not be able to get results.”
Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com