By Beau Evans
Capitol Beat News Service
A mandatory masking order is in effect in the city of Atlanta, requiring everyone inside Georgia’s capital city to wear masks in public and in businesses open to the public amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The order, which took effect late Wednesday, pits Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms against Gov. Brian Kemp, who opposes issuing a statewide mask mandate amid a recent rise in positive COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in Georgia.
The governor has not signaled whether he may take legal steps to overturn Atlanta’s mask order, given his own executive orders on COVID-19 require local governments to adopt the state’s health and safety rules, which do not so far include any guidelines on mandatory masking.
The Atlanta order also limits public gatherings to 10 people or fewer in Atlanta, potentially impacting the ability for large protests against racial injustice and police brutality to continue as they have over the past several weeks.
It provides exceptions for those with medical conditions who may not be able to wear masks, as well as when people are eating, smoking, swimming in a pool or riding in a vehicle.
“We will continue to take active measures to help slow the spread of COVID-19 infections in Atlanta,” Bottoms said in a statement. “Public health experts overwhelmingly agree that wearing a face covering helps slow the spread of this sometimes deadly virus.”
With the masking order in place, Atlanta joins a handful of other Georgia cities including Savannah and Athens that have recently issued requirements for facial coverings in public.
National and local health experts strongly agree the widespread use of masks will be essential to curbing the virus’ spread without a vaccine or cure.
Kemp has also urged voluntary mask wearing in Georgia via a statewide awareness tour and by launching a marketing campaign for reopened businesses to adopt safe distancing, cleaning and masking practices.
“To keep our friends and neighbors safe from COVID-19, we have to do our part,” the governor said Thursday on Twitter. “Mask up, Georgia!”
Kemp has, however, stopped short of requiring Georgians to wear masks, noting on several occasions that people in the state should not need a mask mandate “to do the right thing.”
Many local elected leaders have called on the governor to go a step further with masking rules – or at least allow city and county officials to set their own measures.
“We should not be sending the message to local governments that they don’t have the right or the space to take those steps on their own,” said Georgia House Minority Leader Bob Trammell, D-Luthersville.
Other influential Georgia leaders have steered clear of the mask debate. House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, noted he ordered state House lawmakers to wear masks during the legislative session last month but has no such say over local affairs.
“Whether local municipalities are able to compel mask wearing under the governor’s executive order isn’t my decision to make,” Ralston said Thursday. “Frankly, all that matters now is keeping people healthy and getting our economy growing again.”
The governor’s office has not responded this week when asked if Kemp is considering legal options to overrule the order.
On Twitter, Kemp’s communications director, Candice Broce, leveled criticism at aspects of the Atlanta order, highlighting that “there’s no exception for exercise, but there’s an exception for smoking.”
More than 100,000 people in Georgia have tested positive for COVID-19 since the highly contagious respiratory virus swept the state starting in March. Around 3,000 Georgians have died.
Positive cases have edged up in Georgia in recent weeks.
In a troubling trend, hospital admissions began climbing again this month in Albany, which was one of the state’s worst COVID-19 hotspots earlier this year.
The Southwest Georgia city’s Phoebe Putney Health System noted Thursday that 37 patients have been admitted in the last eight days, approaching close to the total of 47 patients seen there throughout June.
“It is clear transmission of the virus is picking up throughout Georgia and much of the country,” said Scott Steiner, Phoebe Putney’s chief executive officer. “We are all anxious for our lives to return to normal, but to protect ourselves, our families and our communities, that normal must include wearing masks in public and limiting close contact with others.”