Kemp renews ban on mask mandates, extends Georgia coronavirus restrictions



The new statewide order expires Aug. 15

Gov. Brian Kemp extended Georgia’s coronavirus restrictions with an order that also renewed rules explicitly banning cities and counties from adopting mask mandates that are at the center of a legal dispute with the city of Atlanta.

The executive order he signed Friday also maintains a series of safety guidelines for restaurants and other businesses that have been in place for months as Georgia struggles with a rising number of coronavirus cases. It expires on Aug. 15.

Published late Friday, just hours before a previous order was set to lapse, Kemp’s new rules are laced with language aimed at bolstering the state’s legal case. One section emphasizes the need for a statewide response to “prevent confusion,” while another details the broad emergency powers state lawmakers granted Kemp earlier this year.

While the governor has long restricted local governments from taking tougher steps than the state, he signed rules in mid-July that for the first time specified that cities and counties couldn’t mandate masks. Friday’s order sent a sharp signal that he’s not relenting on that stance.

That ban set the stage for a lawsuit his office filed challenging Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’ decision to adopt a mask requirement and urge new economic limits aimed at containing the COVID-19 pandemic.

Bottoms reached out to Kemp last week to initiate settlement negotiations and the governor canceled a request for an emergency hearing. But officials said talks between the two sides haven’t gained traction since a court-ordered mediation session on Monday.

The mayor has said she’s prepared to defend her measures in court, and she’s drawn the support of several outside groups that have accused Kemp of “usurping” local rights. Kemp, meanwhile, contends that mask requirements adopted by Atlanta and a dozen other communities are unenforceable and unwarranted.

“While government plays an important role in fighting this pandemic,” Kemp said Friday, “the people of our great state will ultimately be the ones who defeat this virus.”

No rollback

Kemp was under pressure to impose stiffer restrictions to stem the spread of the disease. Since he signed his last order into effect two weeks ago, Georgia has set records for daily confirmed cases of the disease, the hospitalization rate has soared and federal health officials urged the state to impose new restrictions.

More than 180,000 Georgians have contracted the disease, and state data shows nearly 90% of critical care beds are now in use, with some regions showing just a handful of units available. Earlier on Friday, Kemp announced that a makeshift medical facility will open next week at the Georgia World Congress Center to reduce the stress on the health care network.

But the governor has said new restrictions were unnecessary, and instead, he called on local officials to enforce rules in his order that guide how restaurants operate.

He has strongly opposed a return to the strict statewide coronavirus rules in force through much of April, when personal care businesses such as nail salons and barbershops were shuttered and restaurants were barred from allowing dine-in service.

Kemp became one of the first state leaders to roll back economic restrictions in late April, temporarily drawing the wrath of President Donald Trump, and he has until recently steadily eased limits. In fact, 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 faced repeated calls from public health officials and other critics who demand that he take more proactive measures. Some point toward a handful of GOP governors who have either imposed mask mandates or given leeway to local governments to institute their own restrictions.

In Georgia, many local officials are already going their own way. Since Savannah became the first Georgia city to institute a mask requirement in June, several cities and suburbs have followed suit. An Atlanta Journal-Constitution review showed the rules are rarely, if ever, enforced.

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 the state twice in a week in May, has hailed Georgia as a model.