Kemp’s latest order allows local mask mandates for the first time

An FAQ on Georgia's new coronavirus guidelines

After months of opposing local mask mandates, Gov. Brian Kemp signed an executive order on Saturday that empowers many Georgia cities and counties to impose face covering requirements to combat the coronavirus.

More than a dozen governments have already adopted those requirements over Kemp’s objections, and the governor had gone to court to block them.

But he dropped his lawsuit earlier this week and reversed his opposition to local mask mandates, setting the stage for Saturday’s order.

Here’s what you should know:

>> Read the order here.

First, the broad strokes: What does the order do?

It extends restrictions that have been in place for most of the summer, including a shelter-in-place order for the “medically fragile,” bans on large gatherings and requires restaurants, retail shops, bars, nightclubs and other businesses to follow safety guidelines to remain open.

This order expires on Aug. 31.

What about mask mandates?

The order continues to “strongly encourage” residents and visitors to wear masks but doesn’t require them. But for the first time, Kemp is giving cities and counties leeway to impose their own mask restrictions. It calls them “Local Option Face Covering Requirements.”

How does it work?

Under the order, any city and county is empowered to institute mask requirements on government-owned property. About 100 have already done so, according to the Georgia Municipal Association, and Kemp’s decision allows them to move forward with their requirements.

It also authorizes some local governments who meet a coronavirus “threshold” to pass a broader mask mandate if they comply with a host of restrictions. Chief among them: the mask requirements can only be enforced on private property if the owner or occupant consents.

It also limits potential penalties to $50, requires authorities to issue a warning before writing a citation and that violators can’t be punished with prison time. Fines can’t be levied against private businesses or nonprofits, and it can’t be enforced against people on residential property.

What is the threshold?

There must be a prevalence in a county of confirmed cases of COVID-19 over the previous 14 days at least 100 cases per 100,000 people. According to state public health data, all but two of Georgia’s 159 counties now meet that definition.

How many cities have already adopted these requirements?

After Savannah adopted Georgia’s first mask mandate in July, about 15 other cities adopted similar requirements. Kemp singled out the city of Atlanta in his July lawsuit, citing the “phase one” economic guidelines that encourage residents to shelter in place and restaurants to roll back dine-in service.

As noted earlier, 100 or so cities already require masks on government-owned property, such as city halls, courthouses and civic recreational buildings.

How often are they being enforced?

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.

SAVANNAH, GA - June 30, 2020: A family wearing masks walk through one of Savannah's historic squares while other visitors eat on a bench near by. Savannah on Tuesday became the first major city in Georgia to require the use of face masks, setting up a potential showdown with Gov. Brian Kemp over whether local officials can take more sweeping steps than the state to contain the coronavirus. (AJC Photo/Stephen B. Morton)

Credit: Stephen B. Morton

icon to expand image

Credit: Stephen B. Morton

What does Kemp say about why the state is now allowing local mask mandates?

“This order also protects Georgia businesses from government overreach by restricting the application and enforcement of local masking requirements to public property,” the governor said in a statement. “While I support local control, it must be properly balanced with property rights and personal freedoms.”

Why did he reverse his position?

Kemp’s order comes shortly after he abandoned a legal challenge that sought to block Atlanta’s mask mandate in a legal feud with Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms.

He said he dropped the lawsuit because of a “stalemate” in settlement negotiations, and blamed the mayor for refusing to “agree to a settlement that safeguards the rights of private property owners.”

She called those remarks “woefully inaccurate” but said she’s grateful he withdrew the court case so the city and state can focus on fighting a pandemic that’s sickened at least 230,000 Georgians and killed more than 4,500 others.

He’s also faced sharp criticism from public health experts, Democrats and the White House coronavirus task force for his opposition to mask mandates.

What do legal experts say about the new mask mandate rules?

Anthony Kreis, a Georgia State University constitutional law professor, said local governments could have a “strong argument the governor is still acting outside his authority” if they impose a mask mandate that doesn’t meet Kemp’s guidelines.

“The law only empowers him to act in furtherance of the public health,” said Kreis. “This order runs contrary to best public health practices by his own admission and every expert—the real motivation is ideological, which the emergency statute doesn’t contemplate as a legitimate rulemaking end.”