Savannah mask mandate takes effect, putting Kemp in tricky spot

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.

“I wouldn’t be able to speak about any state action because I haven’t had time to really discuss the matter,” Kemp said at the launch of a statewide fly-around tour. “But regardless of any legal action that may or may not happen, you shouldn’t need a mask mandate for people to do the right thing.”

Savannah became the first city in Georgia to require the use of masks with an executive order that took effect at 8 a.m. Wednesday that threatens violators with a $500 fine if they refuse an offer of a face covering and flout the mandate.

Mayor Van Johnson said he had no choice but to impose the restrictions as the city grapples with record-setting numbers of confirmed coronavirus cases and thousands of tourists who aren’t wearing masks.

But it sets up a potential legal showdown with Kemp, a Republican who signed a statewide order that said Georgians are "strongly encouraged" but not required to use masks. Kemp has said he believes a requirement to don face coverings is a "bridge too far" and instead prefers a softer approach.

His order was designed to prevent local governments from enacting more stringent or lenient rules, and it has infuriated some mayors and county commissioners who called it too permissive or too draconian since an early version took effect in April.

Savannah’s new mandate puts Kemp in a dicey spot. Attempting to block the order pits him in a thorny battle against the Democratic-led city over a topic – wearing masks – he advocates. Not doing so could send a signal that other cities could take similar steps – and possibly enact additional restrictions.

“We can disagree on how we go about solving the problem,” Kemp said from the tarmac of DeKalb-Peachtree Airport. “We all agree especially right now it’s wise for people to wear a mask, especially when they’re out in a public setting.”

Kemp’s two-day, seven-city “Wear a Mask” tour comes amid a troubling increase in coronavirus cases and hospitalizations throughout the state.

Georgia set a record last week with more than 11,000 new cases of the coronavirus. The state Department of Public Health on Wednesday reported nearly 3,000 new cases of the disease, shattering Sunday's single-day record of 2,225.

“People had let their guard down. We were moving in a very positive direction” Kemp said. “Summer hit, people were itching to get out after weeks and months of shutdown, not only in our state but across the country. And, quite honestly, people got lackadaisical.”

Public health experts have warned Kemp has contributed to that problem by aggressively rolling back coronavirus economic restrictions since late April, allowing bars, restaurants and personal care businesses to reopen if they follow guidelines.

Kemp is using the tour to highlight the distribution of 3 million masks to local governments and school districts across the state, though it’s also trained attention on why he hasn’t imposed new restrictions or required the use of masks to try to combat the increase.

“I’m going to continue to consider every option that we have based on the science and the data,” the governor said. “There’s a lot of people that don’t believe a mask mandate will work. I don’t think we’re going to have to get to that point. Our citizens have heeded the call before.”