When Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms announced she would sign a mask-wearing mandate Wednesday, she wasn’t just protecting her citizens—she was adding fire to a growing revolt over Gov. Brian Kemp’s refusal to require face coverings in Georgia.
“Atlanta is going to do it today because the fact of the matter is that COVID-19 is wreaking havoc on our city, specifically black and brown communities with higher death rates,” said the mayor, who recently tested positive for the coronavirus, making hers the third and largest city to defy Kemp’s orders.
While Kemp has encouraged Georgians to mask up in public spaces—and even embarked on a “Wear a Mask” tour to that effect—he has repeatedly said that mandates are unnecessary and discouraged local governments from instituting them. His latest order, issued as cases in Georgia reached record levels, extended existing COVID-19 safety measures but did not require masks. Previous orders have barred local governments from enforcing public safety orders that exceed the governor’s.
Despite this, legislators in Atlanta, Savannah, and Athens have all enacted mask ordinances in their cities in recent days, and several others are considering it. The Atlanta order came just one day after Bottoms told Good Morning America that Kemp had expressly forbidden her from requiring masks in the city.
Asked about Kemp’s decision to declare a state of emergency in Atlanta over a recent spate of violent crime, Bottoms said, “The irony of that is that I asked Gov. Kemp to allow us to mandate masks in Atlanta and he said no, but he has called in the National Guard without asking if we need the National Guard.”
Savannah Mayor Van Johnson has also bucked the governor’s orders, saying last week that the rising case count in the city “necessitates a substantial paradigm shift and corresponding drastic action.” (According to state data, cases increased 125 percent in Chatham County between May and June.)
“Frankly and honestly, I do not believe we have another choice,” Johnson said at a press conference announcing the city’s mask ordinance.
The city of Doraville has also announced that it will implement a mask ordinance starting Monday, and the city councils of South Fulton and Fairburn are discussing similar ordinances this week. The governing body for all 26 of Georgia’s public colleges and universities, which previously told schools they could not mandate masks for students, announced Monday that all students, staff, faculty, and visitors would be required to wear face coverings on campus.
Even Kemp’s hometown of Athens has issued a mask mandate, which the Athens-Clarke Commission unanimously approved Tuesday. Commissioner Patrick Davenport said the mandate was about saving lives, not about politics, telling the Athens Banner-Herald, “Your life is 10 times more precious to me than any politics you can throw at me.”
But experts say Kemp’s handling of the situation could have political impacts. Andra Gillespie, a political science professor at Emory University, said the showdown over mask mandates is unlikely to bother Kemp’s most ardent supporters. But she predicted that Democratic strategists were already thinking about how to use Kemp’s handling of the pandemic—especially his rush to roll back restrictions—against him in the 2022 campaign.
The professor described the local ordinances as a game of “chicken” that would likely end only if someone attempted to challenge a punishment they received for not wearing a mask in public.
“I think what everyone is hoping for is that with the mandate, people will put the mask on without any argument,” she said. “The problem comes if they actually seriously try to enforce the law and someone reminds them [that] they didn’t have the authority to do so, and all of a sudden that lack of enforcement comes back to bite them in the butt.”
Kemp has so far taken a muted response to the defiant local ordinances. Asked how he would respond to Savannah’s ordinance earlier this month, he said he had not discussed options with his legal team. In a conference call with local leaders Tuesday, the governor allowed that “many on this call have different opinions on the appropriate response to this pandemic—and that’s fine.”
“We all agree that masks are good and can help stop the spread,” he said, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “We all know that social distancing makes it hard for the virus to travel. We agree that handwashing can limit exposure. So instead of mandates, I’m asking you to join me in raising awareness.”
Several local politicians told The Daily Beast that the governor’s muted reaction to Savannah’s mandate had convinced them to go forward with their own. South Fulton City Councilwoman Catherine Foster-Rowell said her mayor had been in touch with Kemp’s office about the issue, and she felt confident they would not experience backlash if they voted to implement a mandate Wednesday night.
Doraville Mayor Joseph Geierman went even further, saying he hoped that cities passing their own mask mandates would push the governor to implement one statewide.
“Cities were the first to implement lockdowns and try to flatten the curve when this first started, and the governor eventually followed up,” Geierman said. “He’s going to have to see that he needs to lead, so that the cities aren’t getting out ahead of him.”
Public health experts have also weighed in in favor of mask mandates. Harry Heiman, a public health professor at Georgia State University, told the Associated Press that the evidence is “unequivocal” that simply encouraging people to wear masks does not go far enough, saying that “the idea that kind of pleading and coaxing people to put on masks is going to get you to where you need to be is nonsensical.”
“These are exactly the times when we have to leverage policies that are effective,” he said.
Kemp was one of the first governors to start lifting restrictions in his state, declaring as early as April that gyms, bowling alleys, nail salons, barbers, and tattoo parlors could open for business. Early last month, he signed an order allowing for gatherings of as many as 50 people without social-distancing requirements.
On Tuesday, Georgia became the ninth state to surpass 100,000 cases, on the same day the state broke its record for the number of people hospitalized for COVID-19. The spike in cases Tuesday was only the second-highest in recent days, just behind an increase of nearly 3,500 cases and 22 deaths last Thursday.
If the number of deaths continue to rise, Kemp’s strategy of least resistance could backfire, political pollster and strategist Joel Benenson told The Daily Beast. Benenson compared Kemp’s strategy to President Donald Trump’s lax approach to public safety measures, noting that most Americans disapprove of how the president has handled the pandemic.
“When a leader minimizes the steps that people should take, they’re gonna pay the consequences,” he said. “It’s just not a good strategy, particularly in a state where you’ve got a diverse population and a growing crowd of suburban voters.”
Benenson also pointed to what he called the “hypocrisy” of going on a state-wide tour to encourage mask wearing while encouraging local governments not to enact mask mandates.
“You can’t have it both ways,” he said. “What you’re gonna do when you straddle the fence is you’re going to hurt yourself in places you don't want to hurt yourself.”