Kemp drops lawsuit against Atlanta over mask mandate, coronavirus restrictions

Gov. Brian Kemp, left, announced Thursday that he will withdraw his lawsuit against the city of Atlanta over its mask mandate and other restrictions aimed at combating the coronavirus. But Kemp, shown with U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams, plans to issue a new order that would limit the mandates to government property. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)
Gov. Brian Kemp, left, announced Thursday that he will withdraw his lawsuit against the city of Atlanta over its mask mandate and other restrictions aimed at combating the coronavirus. But Kemp, shown with U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams, plans to issue a new order that would limit the mandates to government property. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Credit: ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

Credit: ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

Gov. Brian Kemp on Thursday withdrew his lawsuit challenging the city of Atlanta’s mask mandate and coronavirus restrictions, ending a legal feud between the Republican governor and the Democratic leader of the state’s capital city over how to contain the pandemic.

Kemp said he will instead sign an executive order Saturday that is expected to specify that local governments can’t order private businesses to require masks. It is also likely to remove a provision that explicitly outlawed cities and counties from mandating face coverings, administration officials say.

“Unfortunately, the mayor has made it clear that she will not agree to a settlement that safeguards the rights of private property owners in Georgia,” said Kemp, citing a “stalemate” in negotiations. “We will continue to protect the lives and livelihoods of all Georgians.”

Bottoms called Kemp’s remarks “woefully inaccurate” and accused him of trying to intentionally mislead the public. She added that she was “grateful that this lawsuit has been withdrawn and the time and resources of our city and state can be better used to combat COVID-19.”

The decision effectively allows Atlanta and other cities to keep their mask mandates on the books, though state officials said Kemp’s order will seek to limit the scope of the ordinances to government property.

ExploreWhite House warns of ‘widespread and expanding’ COVID-19 spread in Georgia
ExploreKemp v. Bottoms negotiations hit a snag

It also amounts to a tactical shift for Kemp, who expressed confidence he would prevail in court before reversing course. He has said he has no plans to require residents or students to wear masks, casting mandates as unnecessary and unenforceable, though he’s encouraged them to do so.

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms on July 10 ordered the city to revert to “phase one” guidelines that encouraged new limits on restaurants and other businesses to contain the coronavirus. She later agreed to clarify that the “phase one” economic restrictions were voluntary, not mandatory. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal Constitution
Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms on July 10 ordered the city to revert to “phase one” guidelines that encouraged new limits on restaurants and other businesses to contain the coronavirus. She later agreed to clarify that the “phase one” economic restrictions were voluntary, not mandatory. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal Constitution

Kemp filed the lawsuit in July amid escalating tensions with the mayor that were inflamed by a dispute over his decision to deploy Georgia National Guard troops to protect the Capitol and other state buildings in Atlanta despite Bottoms’ opposition.

It targeted Bottoms’ July 10 decision to revert to “phase one” guidelines that encouraged new limits on restaurants and other businesses to contain the disease, and it cast the city’s mask requirements as “void and unenforceable.”

During settlement negotiations, Bottoms agreed to clarify that the “phase one” economic restrictions were voluntary, not mandatory, but both sides clashed over the scope of mask requirements.

In the runup to the courtroom battle, both politicians assailed each other and their public relationship, functional if never warm, steadily disintegrated.

ExploreAnalysis: Behind the rift between Kemp and Bottoms

More recently, though, there were signs of a thaw. Bottoms called Kemp in late July to initiate settlement discussions, later saying that she was confident the two could “agree to disagree” over the measures. And Kemp’s attorneys recently pulled back a request for an emergency court hearing.

Still, Kemp’s decision last week to call for a special legislative session created a new wrinkle. He said he would ask lawmakers to consider “oversight” legislation, raising the possibility he could push to give the state more control of Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport as a bargaining chip.

ExploreKemp's call for a special session raises skepticism

‘Only enemy'

Bottoms is among several mayors who, frustrated by Kemp’s rollback of restrictions, have defied his order and imposed their own limits.

Savannah was the first to require face coverings, and Larry Hanson, the executive director of the Georgia Municipal Association, said about 15 Georgia cities now have citywide mask policies in place. Roughly 100 others, he said, require masks on their government property.

Gov. Brian Kemp, second from the right, has said he favors the use of face coverings to limit the spread of the coronavirus but that he believes a mask mandate is unenforceable. Alyssa Pointer / alyssa.pointer@ajc.com
Gov. Brian Kemp, second from the right, has said he favors the use of face coverings to limit the spread of the coronavirus but that he believes a mask mandate is unenforceable. Alyssa Pointer / alyssa.pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Savannah Mayor Van Johnson said he was “elated” by Kemp’s decision to drop the lawsuit “and stop this madness that has left Georgia citizens confused and conflicted.”

“Our common and only enemy is COVID-19 and we should be focused and intentional about doing all we can to keep people safe by wearing masks, staying socially distant and washing our hands,” he said, adding that Savannah “will continue to mandate that our citizens and those within our gates wear masks.”

A recent Atlanta Journal-Constitution review found the mandates were scarcely enforced. The newspaper contacted 15 police departments and law enforcement agencies in the cities, suburbs and small towns that enacted the restrictions. Not a single citation was reported.

Atlanta was singled out by the governor in part because it was the only local government to also institute the “phase one” restrictions, which Kemp said led to widespread confusion among business owners. There were political reasons, too, as Bottoms is among the state’s most prominent Democrats.

Bottoms had previously said she was prepared for a lengthy legal battle to defend the city’s order, pointing out that she and two family members are among the more than 100,000 Georgians who have tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

Her lawsuit was backed by several allies, including union groups, the Georgia Municipal Association and the state’s Democratic state legislative delegation. Each accused Kemp of attempting to usurp local control by seeking to block cities from taking additional steps to protect residents from the disease.

Many public health experts say mask requirements are among the most essential steps to containing the spread of the disease. Dr. Harry Heiman, a professor at Georgia State University’s School of Public Health, said the science backing up the value of face coverings is unequivocal.

“If you were to bring 100 experts into a room and ask them ‘What is the one single thing that should be done in terms of a policy?’ it is mandating masks,” he said.

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