Kemp faces new challenge over coronavirus restrictions

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
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

Since Gov. Brian Kemp signed his last coronavirus-related order into effect two weeks ago, Georgia has set new records for daily confirmed cases of the disease, the hospitalization rate has soared and federal health officials urged the state to impose new restrictions.

With the executive order set to expire on Friday, Kemp has a new decision to make: Extend rules that allow restaurants, bars and other businesses to remain open if they follow safety guidelines or revive stiffer restrictions aimed at containing the pandemic.

The new order must also account for a different challenge. For the first time two weeks ago, Kemp explicitly banned cities and counties from adopting rules requiring face coverings, setting the stage for a lawsuit the next day targeting Atlanta’s mask

ExploreU.S. House chairman asks Kemp for documents detailing Georgia’s handling of COVID-19

mandate.

Now with talk of a settlement swirling, Kemp could send a message by tinkering with the language that seeks to ban cities from requiring masks – or removing it altogether. Kemp, who has encouraged the use of masks but not required them, has said the mandates are unenforceable.

So far, the governor has strongly opposed a return to the strict statewide coronavirus rules in force through much of April, when close-contact businesses such as nail salons and barber shops were shuttered and restaurants were barred from allowing dine-in services.

He became one of the first governors to roll back economic restrictions in late April, temporarily drawing the wrath of President Donald Trump. Kemp’s last few statewide orders were notable in part because they held the line on many rules rather than continuing a trend of easing them.

The Republican has come under increasing pressure from public health officials and other critics who call for him to take more proactive measures. Several GOP governors have imposed mask mandates, and others have given leeway to local governments to institute their own restrictions.

Meanwhile, a new federal report lists Georgia among 21 states in the “red zone” due to a rising number of coronavirus cases. The report obtained by The New York Times recommends that Georgia officials impose a statewide mask mandate, close bars and nightclubs, and limit indoor dining.

Trump and other White House figures, however, have endorsed Kemp’s approach. The president has called for more states to reopen their economies and Vice President Mike Pence, who visited twice in a week in May, has hailed Georgia as a model.

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