Savannah enforces mask mandate with a delicate hand

Credit: Stephen B. Morton for The Atlanta Journal Constitution

Credit: Stephen B. Morton for The Atlanta Journal Constitution

Coastal city puts staffers on the streets to encourage compliance on use of face coverings

SAVANNAH — It’s a steamy weekday morning in downtown Savannah, and more than a few tourists and residents who are wandering the city’s streets are ignoring the bright green “MASK UP” sign that stretches across the front of City Hall.

That’s where Nicole Bush and Matthew Krueger step in. Wearing pressed blue shirts labeled “COVID Resource Team,” their job over the next five or so hours is to gently enforce Savannah’s mask mandate, taking on the delicate task of trying to urge compliance without seeming heavy-handed.

“We are the beta test. We are developing this as we go,” said Bush, the city staffer who helped come up with the program. “Ideally, we can provide an example for other Georgia cities. Nobody’s doing anything close to what we are.”

She’s got a point. Savannah is not only the first Georgia city to adopt a mask mandate. A review of law enforcement agencies conducted by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution shows it’s also the first to actively enforce it, at least in such a coordinated and proactive manner.

And as Georgia races to find new ways to contain the coronavirus pandemic, Savannah could prove a useful example for other cities scrambling to stem the spread of the disease.

After long forbidding cities and counties from mandating face coverings, Gov. Brian Kemp recently relaxed rules to allow local governments to require them.

Pressed to take more drastic measures, Kemp has criticized local officials for not enforcing the coronavirus guidelines they have on the books, saying “we can’t be every city’s police agency.”

Credit: Stephen B. Morton for The Atlanta Journal Constitution

Credit: Stephen B. Morton for The Atlanta Journal Constitution

“There’s also people who don’t need a government mandate to do the right thing,” he said ahead of a recent fly-around tour urging Georgians to take safety precautions. “That’s why I’m here today asking people to be part of the solution, not part of the problem.”

‘Want to comply’

It’s safe to say Savannah Mayor Van Johnson, who defied Kemp by instituting a mask mandate when it was still outlawed, took him up on the challenge.

“A mask ordinance does not have any teeth — it’s ineffective if it’s not being enforced,” Johnson said. “It’s enforcement time.”

And he and Kemp seemed to set aside their flap on Friday when they appeared together at a stop on the governor’s statewide flyaround tour -- and Johnson gave Kemp a face mask branded with Savannah’s logo.

The city’s program started about two weeks ago, when a few dozen city marshals took to the streets to encourage residents and visitors to comply with the mask requirements, armed with face coverings supplied by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration.

The results, so far, have been somewhat surprising.

Nick Zoller, a city spokesman, said he’s aware of only one person who has refused to take a mask.

“There’s a lot of things that people say behind a keyboard that they won’t say in person,” he said. “Instead, when push comes to shove, people want to comply.”

Although Savannah so far stands alone with its initiative, several Georgia law enforcement agencies had informal programs. Among them is the Fairburn Police Department, where officers are urging voluntary compliance of the local mask mandate.

Credit: Stephen B. Morton

Credit: Stephen B. Morton

Anthony Bazydlo, the deputy chief, said he’s aware of only a handful of cases where a resident or visitor flouted the south Fulton County city’s ordinance after being confronted by a business owner.

“It has never escalated to the level of enforcement action being needed,” he said.

And officials in Marietta, like those in other Georgia cities that responded to the AJC’s survey, say the goal is to “educate and encourage voluntary compliance” rather than to issue citations.

Police spokesman Charles McPhilamy said fewer than five businesses violated the governor’s coronavirus restrictions; all agreed to immediately close to comply with the statewide order rather than risk legal action.

That seems to reflect a broader approach: An earlier AJC review found that citations were rarely, if ever, written for those violating mask orders.

One exception is Athens-Clarke County, where officials have issued at least 14 citations to people who “continued to remove their masks after being warned numerous times by several officers,” according to a recent update sent to local legislators.

‘Better place’

Savannah’s program is housed under the city’s Office of Special Events, Film and Tourism rather than its police agency. That brings an added dose of hospitality to the squads of staffers roaming the city in a heavy-duty golf cart stuffed with masks — in a neon bag, in the glove compartment, in boxes.

Credit: Stephen B. Morton for The Atlanta Journal Constitution

Credit: Stephen B. Morton for The Atlanta Journal Constitution

Each keeps detailed statistics of their work. Since the middle of August, the initiative has handed out more than 1,800 masks throughout the town, many in congested areas such as the scenic city squares or the River Street tourist haven. Only one person had refused the offer.

It can be a tricky task for the staffers, who must quickly size up the situation and make snap judgments about who to approach.

The city’s ordinance, like others across the state, includes exceptions for those exercising, eating or drinking, participating in religious services, out with people they live with, or are by themselves and able to socially distance from others.

That means staffers generally hover toward larger groups of people. Some instinctively grabbed their masks out of purses and pockets when they saw Bush and Krueger headed their way, others needed a bit of prodding.

“As long as people can see our purpose is to keep the economy open and create a safe environment, they’re understanding,” said Krueger, the city’s film and media coordinator. “I’ve never had to write any citations, and I’m fine with that. We are just trying to make this city a better place to live.”

Credit: Stephen B. Morton for The Atlanta Journal Constitution

Credit: Stephen B. Morton for The Atlanta Journal Constitution

Every so often, Krueger’s been on the receiving end of a sharp glare or a confused stare. But he said no one has ever been “openly hostile.” And during a recent morning shift, they were met with gratitude by many of the maskless.

Richard Williams had been using a frayed bandanna for too long to shield himself from the virus. He happily collected two surgical masks from Bush and Krueger as he sat for a spell in a busy square. He immediately put one on and stuffed the other in a backpack for safekeeping.

“They weren’t harassing me. They were talking to me like a person. They just want me to be safe,” said Williams, who was visiting from nearby Beaufort, South Carolina.

“They’re just looking to protect other people — and we get that. It’s more of a public service,” he said, pausing for a moment while he thought it over. “You know, that’s exactly what it is.”

Staff Writer Alexis Stevens contributed to this article.

Credit: Stephen B. Morton for The Atlanta Journal Constitution

Credit: Stephen B. Morton for The Atlanta Journal Constitution