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Kemp’s office seeks to block Atlanta mask mandate in court

07/16/2020 - Marietta, Georgia - Gov. Brian Kemp greets Mary Chatman (left), executive vice president of Wellstar Health System and president of Wellstar Kennestone and Wellstar Windy Hill Hospitals, before the start of a ribbon cutting for the new Wellstar Kennestone Hospital Emergency Department building in Marietta, Thursday, July 16, 2020. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)
07/16/2020 - Marietta, Georgia - Gov. Brian Kemp greets Mary Chatman (left), executive vice president of Wellstar Health System and president of Wellstar Kennestone and Wellstar Windy Hill Hospitals, before the start of a ribbon cutting 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

The lawsuit also challenges city's other coronavirus restrictions

Gov. Brian Kemp’s administration went to court Thursday seeking to block Atlanta from enacting coronavirus restrictions and requiring residents to wear masks, setting up a legal showdown between the state and local governments over efforts to contain the disease.

The state filed a lawsuit challenging Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’ July 10 decision to revert to “phase one” guidelines that push restaurants to close dining rooms and urge residents to leave home only for essential trips. It also casts the city’s new mask requirements as “void and unenforceable.”

“This lawsuit is on behalf of the Atlanta business owners and their hardworking employees who are struggling to survive during these difficult times,” Kemp said in a statement. “These men and women are doing their very best to put food on the table for their families while local elected officials shutter businesses and undermine economic growth.”

Bottoms said she was ready for a 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 the disease.

“A better use of taxpayer money would be to expand testing and contact tracing,” said Bottoms. “If being sued by the state is what it takes to save lives in Atlanta, then we will see them in court.”

The legal complaint, filed in Fulton County Superior Court, came one day after Kemp signed a statewide order that explicitly bans cities and counties from enforcing mask mandates. Atlanta and a dozen other cities have adopted such requirements, defying an order from Kemp that encourages but not mandates them.

Many of those cities vowed to enforce the mask mandates despite Kemp’s legal maneuvering, including local officials in Kemp’s hometown of Athens and the mayor of Savannah, which had enacted the first such requirement in the state.

ExploreRead the legal complaint here

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

Kemp’s office criticized Bottoms’ July 10 measure as “merely guidance – both non-binding and legally unenforceable” because it deviated from his statewide order that restricts local governments from taking more drastic actions than the state. He’s said mask requirements, too, are unnecessary.

Asked earlier Thursday about the possibility of a legal battle with the state, Bottoms said during a virtual town hall that she was “not concerned about that at all.”

“I love to quote Audre Lorde,” she said of the late feminist and poet. “She says, ‘I am deliberate and afraid of nothing.’ I am not afraid of the city being sued and I will put our policies up against anyone’s, any day of the week.”

‘Confuse the public'

The lawsuit, which names Bottoms and the City Council as defendants, asserts that Kemp has the power to “suspend municipal orders that are contradictory” to state laws or his executive actions.

And it claims Bottoms “tied the hands” of police by instructing them to ignore his orders, which include restrictions on gatherings of more than 50 people and safety guidelines for restaurants and other businesses.

It asks a judge to block Bottoms from issuing any orders or press releases that impose a mask mandate or enact other restrictions that go beyond the state’s approach.

Gov. Brian Kemp’s lawsuit accuses Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms of violating his executive orders by banning gatherings of more than 10 people on city property and requiring people to wear masks in Atlanta.
Gov. Brian Kemp’s lawsuit accuses Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms of violating his executive orders by banning gatherings of more than 10 people on city property and requiring people to wear masks in Atlanta.

Credit: BOB ANDRES / ROBERT.ANDRES@AJC.COM

Credit: BOB ANDRES / ROBERT.ANDRES@AJC.COM

“Mayor Bottoms cannot continue to knowingly enter orders and issue press releases which are unenforceable and void that only serve to confuse the public during a time when the state is in a public health emergency,” the complaint said.

In a tweet shortly after the lawsuit was filed, Bottoms mocked Kemp’s legal strategy targeting economic restrictions that she said are voluntary.

“Reading is fundamental,” she wrote on Twitter. “@GovKemp is suing Atlanta over RECOMMENDED guidelines.”

Bottoms, a potential running-mate for presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, announced those “phase one” guidelines after a week of escalating tension with Kemp.

She criticized his decision to order 1,000 Georgia National Guard troops to Atlanta to protect state buildings, and he panned her order to require masks within the city limits.

ExploreMore: Behind the rift between Atlanta's mayor and Georgia's governor

At least one Atlanta business announced plans to shut down following the mayor’s call for new economic restrictions. Home Grown, a popular restaurant near downtown, said it would temporarily close because of the new restrictions.

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.”

Republican governors in other Southern states have allowed local restrictions even if they resist statewide mandates.

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.

Attorney General Chris Carr, also a plaintiff in the lawsuit, said the litigation is “about the rule of law” and that the state continues to urge Georgians to wear masks.

“The Constitution gives Governor Kemp chief executive power for the State of Georgia, including during a public health state of emergency,” said Carr. “The City of Atlanta cannot continue to knowingly enter orders that are unenforceable and void.”

ExploreKemp extends order deploying Guard troops to Atlanta

In a statement, Kemp tied the lawsuit to his decision last week to deploy troops to the streets of Atlanta after a weekend of violence that included the ransacking of the headquarters of the Georgia State Patrol.

“Just like sending in the Georgia National Guard to protect those living in our capital city from crime and violence, I refuse to sit back and watch as disastrous policies threaten the lives and livelihoods of our citizens,” he said. “We will fight to stop these reckless actions and put people over pandemic politics.”

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