Kemp’s ban of mask mandates puts Georgia on collision course with its cities

07/16/2020 - Marietta, Georgia - Gov. Brian Kemp wears a mask as he waits to speak during a ribbon cutting ceremony for the new Wellstar Kennestone Hospital Emergency Department building in Marietta, Thursday, July 16, 2020. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Credit: ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

Credit: ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

Gov. Brian Kemp’s decision to spell out that cities and counties can’t mandate the use of masks triggered a furious reaction from local government officials who accused the Republican of placing his political interests above their efforts to protect residents from a growing pandemic.

The governor’s order, signed late Wednesday, puts the state on a collision course with local leaders and public health experts who say requiring face coverings is an essential step to containing the spread of the coronavirus. Several mayors said they would continue to enforce mask mandates despite Kemp’s measure.

“When it comes to protecting the lives of Augustans,” Augusta Mayor Hardie Davis said, “we are not going to back down.”

Though Kemp’s previous orders have barred local governments from taking more restrictive steps than the state, the rules he signed Wednesday were the first to explicitly ban cities and counties from requiring the use of masks or other face coverings.

ExploreWhere you have to wear masks in Georgia

The governor has said he believes requiring masks is a “bridge too far” and that such a mandate is unenforceable. Instead, he’s urged Georgians to don face coverings and warned that not doing so threatens the college football season.

The mayors, including many who lead Democratic-leaning cities, swiftly warned that the governor’s attempt to outlaw mask mandates would have fatal consequences.

“It’s officially official. Gov. Kemp does not give a damn about us,” said Savannah Mayor Van Johnson, whose city was the first in Georgia to require masks. “In Savannah, we will continue to keep the faith and follow the science. Masks will continue to be available.”

The coastal Georgia city approved the mask mandate in late June, threatening a $500 fine for violators. After Kemp sidestepped a confrontation with Savannah, at least a dozen other local governments followed suit.

A family wearing masks walks through one of Savannah's historic squares while other visitors eat on a bench. Savannah was the first major city in Georgia to require the use of masks in an attempt to contain the coronavirus. Gov. Brian Kemp signed an order Wednesday to prevent cities and counties from putting in place mask mandates. (AJC Photo/Stephen B. Morton)

Credit: Stephen B. Morton

Credit: Stephen B. Morton

Other local officials backed Kemp’s stance. Tucker Mayor Frank Auman said Thursday that making masks more available, enforcing existing rules and promoting a positive message about their usage will be more effective than any government requirement.

“The point is, we all need to be wearing masks,” Auman said. “The second point is that we will get more people wearing masks using the three steps outlined here ... than we ever would with a mandate.”

‘I’m at a loss'

Along with a cluster of suburban communities, the group of cities that have approved mask mandates includes Atlanta, Augusta and Kemp’s hometown of Athens-Clarke County, which unanimously approved the restrictions last week.

Russell Edwards, an Athens-Clarke commissioner, said Wednesday that local hospitals were unable to accept new patients because they were so overwhelmed by cases of the disease.

“And he still won’t enact lifesaving measures. Instead, he continues to thwart and undermine the efforts of others,” Edwards said of Kemp. “I’m at a loss. He should resign.”

Brookhaven Mayor John Ernst, who adopted a requirement for face coverings last week, said politicians should quit squabbling and send the message to “be nice to one another and wear the damn masks.” And Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said that a mandate she signed last week was still intact.

“At the end of the day, we all have to do the right thing because it is the right thing to do. And what the scientists are telling us is that the right thing to do is to wear a mask,” she said. “What health care professionals are telling us is that they are being overrun in our hospitals and that they are asking us to help slow the spread and be considerate of them.”

Several local Republican officials joined the criticism of Kemp’s approach. Dalton Mayor David Pennington pointed to the rising number of coronavirus cases in Whitfield County, which set a record this week.

“I don’t know why he did it, because he already told us before that we can’t do anything more restrictive. It’s overkill,” said Pennington, a Republican who ran for governor in 2014.

“He needs to leave it up to individual cities and counties to decide what to do,” Pennington said. “I don’t know if masks are the answer, but why don’t we just try it? Nothing else seems to be working.”

About two dozen states have mandated the use of masks, including the Republican-led governments of Texas and West Virginia. Alabama joined the group Wednesday, with Gov. Kay Ivey saying it’s essential to “slow the spread and turn these trends in a different direction.” Other Georgia neighbors have differing policies, creating a scattershot approach.

“If we follow the science, we will be consistent. When you add politics into the equation, then it becomes inconsistent,” said Johnson, the Savannah mayor. “We have four states – South Carolina, Alabama, Georgia and Florida – doing four different things. This is confusing to everyone.”

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said the mask mandate she issued last week remains intact, despite Gov. Brian Kemp's own order blocking cities and counties from requiring the face coverings. “At the end of the day, we all have to do the right thing because it is the right thing to do," Bottoms said. "And what the scientists are telling us is that the right thing to do is to wear a mask.”

Credit: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Across the Alabama state line, Phenix City Mayor Eddie Lowe said most people in his city are wearing masks. He added that workers and tourists go back and forth across the border between Phenix City and Columbus.

”If all of these things that are being said are not true and we are wearing the masks, what will it cost us? Nothing,” said Lowe, who wears a mask in public. “But what if it is true and you are not wearing them, what will it cost you? That is a question you will have to answer for yourself.”

‘Keep fighting'

Georgia has experienced a steady rise in coronavirus infections since June, and the hospitalization rate has climbed just as sharply. Data released Wednesday show roughly 84% of the state’s intensive care units are in use, and the nearly 2,800 people now hospitalized statewide with the illness is the highest on record.

Public health experts have long promoted the use of masks to help prevent the spread of the disease. Brian Castrucci, an epidemiologist who once worked for the Georgia Department of Public Health, noted that 134,000 Americans have now succumbed to COVID-19.

“And my question would be for those who say, ‘It is a low mortality rate,’ just tell us how many dead Americans we need before you will put on the mask,” said Castrucci, who now leads the de Beaumont Foundation, a Maryland-based philanthropic organization focused on public health.

It’s not clear whether Kemp added the language to bolster a potential legal case, though some analysts questioned the constitutionality of the order. Polly Price, a professor of global health and law at Emory University, said she thinks the governor’s order wouldn’t stand up in a court battle.

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

Anthony Michael Kreis, a constitutional law professor at Georgia State University, said there’s no longer any doubt that cities with mask mandates conflict with the state’s order. Instead, he said, there’s a question about whether Kemp’s emergency powers give him the “unfettered authority to clamp down on local authorities.”

“This is no longer a fight about semantics after the new order,” Kreis said. “It is all about executive power in times of crisis and what that means for home rule.”

In a social media message, Kemp urged local elected officials to enforce the terms of his order to “keep fighting COVID-19, weather this storm and emerge stronger than ever.” Kemp didn’t comment further, nor did he take questions Thursday at a bill-signing event.

State Sen. Nikema Williams, who chairs the Democratic Party of Georgia, accused Kemp of muzzling local control to score points with President Donald Trump, who has rarely worn masks in public and didn’t don one during his trip to Atlanta on Wednesday.

“More Georgians will die because of Brian Kemp’s actions tonight,” Williams said, “but he doesn’t seem to care.”

More: Kemp bans cities, counties from mandating masks

Staff writer Tyler Estep contributed to this article.

Gov. Brian Kemp wears a mask Thursday as he waits to speak during a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new Wellstar Kennestone Hospital Emergency Department building in Marietta. The governor encourages Georgians to wear masks as a way to combat the spread of the coronavirus, but he says making it a requirement would be "a bridge too far." (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Credit: ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

Credit: ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

Upon arriving at the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new Wellstar Kennestone Hospital Emergency Department building in Marietta on Thursday, Gov. Brian Kemp received a Wellstar mask. He switched the new mask with the one he had on, before the start of the event. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Credit: ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

Credit: ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

About the Authors

In Other News