Kemp casts lawsuit over Atlanta virus restrictions in ideological terms

'It sends a terrible message,' the governor says
200717-Atlanta-Gov. Brian Kemp listens to Dr. Kathleen Toomey, commissioner of the Georgia Department of Public Health, during a coronavirus briefing Friday morning July 17, 2020 at the State Capitol. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

200717-Atlanta-Gov. Brian Kemp listens to Dr. Kathleen Toomey, commissioner of the Georgia Department of Public Health, during a coronavirus briefing Friday morning July 17, 2020 at the State Capitol. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Gov. Brian Kemp expressed confidence Friday that the state will win a legal challenge against Atlanta over coronavirus restrictions, but he cast his lawsuit targeting the city’s mask mandate and other economic limits as an ideological battle that goes beyond the courthouse.

“While we all agree that wearing a mask is effective, I’m confident that Georgians don’t need a mandate to do the right thing,” he said at a state Capitol news briefing, his first public remarks since he became the nation’s only governor to seek legal action to block local governments from adopting mask requirements.

During more than an hour of remarks to reporters, Kemp assailed critics who have “decided to play politics by exploiting these difficult emotional moments for political gain” and accused Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms of undermining the city’s economy by pressing mandates he said were impossible to enforce.

Bottoms and the leaders of roughly a dozen other cities that have mandated the use of masks said they will press forward with the requirements despite Kemp’s court challenge. She said she welcomed the legal battle and pointed out that she and two family members are among the more than 100,000 Georgians who have contracted the disease.

“A better use of taxpayer money would be to expand testing and contact tracing,” Bottoms said. “If being sued by the state is what it takes to save lives in Atlanta, then we will see them in court.”

She was echoed by several allies. Savannah Mayor Van Johnson, whose city became the first in Georgia to enact a mask mandate, called it a matter of public safety and health.

“If the governor chooses to make it a legal issue,” he said, ‘”then we are prepared to defend ourselves and defend our city.”

But other mayors have backed Kemp’s stance. Macon-Bibb County Mayor Robert Reichert said a mask mandate would contradict Kemp’s orders and also be “difficult if not impossible” to enforce. He instead echoed the governor’s call to encourage residents to voluntarily wear face coverings.

Johns Creek Mayor Mike Bodker also sided with Kemp, describing the need for a top-down approach.

“Someone’s got to be the general making the calls to fight the pandemic so we have one set of rules,” he said. “The reality is, a patchwork of different restrictions doesn’t work. You need consistency.”

‘Barely hanging on'

The governor filed the lawsuit Thursday in Fulton County Superior Court, asking a judge to toss out Atlanta’s new mask mandate and block Bottoms’ decision to revert to “phase one” guidelines that encourage restaurants to close dining rooms and urge residents to leave home only for essential trips.

The “phase one” order was partly the reason Atlanta’s rules were challenged while other cities with mandates were not named as defendants. Though Bottoms described those regulations as voluntary, Kemp said some restaurants were “freaking out” over the rules and others worried they would have to enforce the restrictions.

“Businesses are barely hanging on now,” he said. “They can’t be some city’s police force.”

There are also political implications that likely factored into his decision to target Bottoms, whose once-friendly relationship with the governor has unraveled.

Bottoms is one of the state’s top Democrats and a potential running mate for presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, while Kemp is one of President Donald Trump’s most prominent Republican allies in the South and appeared side by side with him in Atlanta a day before filing the legal case.

In an interview with NBC News on Friday, Bottoms brought up that visit as she accused Kemp of putting “politics over people.”

“The notion that we are somehow interfering with businesses or people’s right to work is simply baseless and a waste of taxpayer money,” the mayor said.

‘Not the right way’

More than two dozen states have mandated the use of masks, including GOP governors in Alabama, Texas and West Virginia. Several other Republican-led states have allowed local restrictions. Kemp stands alone as the only governor seeking legal action to block mask requirements.

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and the mayors of other Georgia cities with mask requirements say those restrictions will stay in place despite Gov. Brian Kemp's legal challenge.

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Kemp filed the lawsuit a day after spelling out that cities and counties can’t mandate the use of masks, infuriating local officials who accused the governor of interfering with their efforts to protect residents from a growing pandemic.

Within hours, many of the roughly dozen mayors who had adopted the mandates said they would defy Kemp’s order and keep their mask requirements in place. It put the state on course for a legal showdown over the rift.

“On one hand, Gov. Kemp clearly supports masks but doesn’t believe in mandates or government intervention,” said state Rep. Scott Holcomb, D-Atlanta. “On the other hand, he believes everything will be fine if his executive orders are followed and enforced by cities.”

The governor, who started aggressively rolling back restrictions in April, said requiring masks is unnecessary and too onerous. Instead, he’s urged Georgians to don face coverings — a message he delivered on a recent statewide tour — and warned that not doing so threatens the college football season.

He was also critical of local governments that he said have not enforced the tenets of his statewide order, which restrict large gatherings and call for restaurants and other businesses to follow dozens of guidelines. Recent records show that state and local authorities have issued few citations for violations of the orders.

“We’re focused on two things: the lives and livelihoods of Georgians,” he said. “I’m also encouraging them to do the other things that we’ve had for months now that nobody is enforcing at the local level that worked before: social distancing, enforce large gathering bans and make sure local businesses are following regulations that have worked in the past.”

Many public health experts have called for more stringent mask requirements to stem the spread of the disease. The Center for Public Integrity uncovered a document prepared for the White House Coronavirus Task Force that showed Georgia was one of 18 states in the “red zone” for coronavirus positivity, and it recommended a statewide order to wear masks outside the home.

Georgia has experienced a steady rise in coronavirus infections since June, and the hospitalization rate has climbed just as sharply. Data released this week shows hospital bed capacity strained and recent record highs statewide in the number of people hospitalized with the illness.

Kemp said Friday that hospital stays have grown shorter because of improved treatments, and he highlighted recent announcements to reopen the makeshift medical facility at the Georgia World Congress Center and a deal with Piedmont Healthcare to add more critical care beds.

The governor also said he’ll soon announce a plan to expand testing in Georgia, which has been plagued by long delays and scarcer availability.

Though some analysts suggest that Kemp could be on firm legal footing for his lawsuit, others have questioned the constitutionality of his order. Polly Price, a professor of global health and law at Emory University, said the governor’s effort to block mask mandates wouldn’t withstand a judge’s scrutiny.

But instead of forcing the question, she said, “why not allow local decision-making, as Texas has done, rather than waste time and resources engaging in litigation?”

Staff writer Jeremy Redmon contributed to this article.

Gov. Brian Kemp and first lady Marty Kemp wear masks Thursday at a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new Wellstar Kennestone Hospital emergency department building in Marietta. The governor encourage the use of masks to combat the spread of the coronavirus but says a mandate is not necessary to get Georgians to do the right thing. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)


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