The 40-year-old has been duly sheltering in place since March in spite of his state’s aggressive reopening scheme, opting to instead have his groceries and other essentials delivered. But he was hopeful that, with Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’ mandate last week that people wear masks in public, it might be safe to go out. So when he read that Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp had issued an order on Wednesday explicitly prohibiting cities from enacting such mandates for the first time, it left him speechless.
“I feel very powerless,” Sirkin told The Daily Beast from his East Atlanta home, adding, “No one cares about my situation.”
A slew of Georgia elected officials quickly slammed Kemp’s order. At first brush, it seemed like just the latest episode in a long-running saga pitting the state’s mayors and public health experts against a governor who has encouraged people to wear masks but often seemed more concerned with libertarian impulses than public safety.
On Thursday evening, Kemp showed he meant business, announcing a lawsuit against top Atlanta officials seeking to prevent them from enacting their local mandate.
“The lawsuit is on behalf of the Atlanta business owners and their hardworking employees who are struggling to survive during these difficult times,” he 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.”
Atlanta sits in Fulton County, which had 331 deaths and 11,700 confirmed COVID-19 cases and rising as of Thursday evening, according to data from John Hopkins University & Medicine.
Mayor Bottoms, herself a COVID-19 patient and the first named defendant in the lawsuit, was quick to hit back.
“3,104 Georgians have died, and I and my family are amongst the 106k who have tested positive for COVID-19,” Bottoms said in response to the lawsuit. “Meanwhile, I have been sued by (Kemp) for a mask mandate. A better use of taxpayer money would be to expand testing and contact.”
As Atlanta officials wrestled with Kemp’s legal barrage, residents said they felt trapped in an increasingly absurd political squabble that left them behind even other conservative, COVID-skeptical locales.
“I see a political fight for power between our governor and our mayor, and I’m not sure either one of them is putting residents first,” said real estate agent Robby Caban.
Caban lives in the Capitol View community in Southwest Atlanta. The relatively low-income neighborhood sits in the 30310 zip code of Fulton County, Georgia, and—according to data from the local board of health—amounts to a COVID-19 hot spot.
Caban said she’d been in areas of the neighborhood that make it difficult to social distance and wear a mask, and believed the mandate would’ve staved off the spread.
“It would’ve changed the potential risks and it would’ve lowered risks at food truck parks for a large amount of people that were picking up food,” she said of the area, which sits in what she described as a food desert.
Gerry Weber, a constitutional law expert and adjunct professor at Emory Law School, said Kemp’s order raised the issue of home rule authority, which allows cities and counties to govern as they see fit. And he called the governor’s lawsuit to enforce the order “uncharted territory.”
“He has removed a tool from the tool kit for cities and counties that have hot spots to combat the pandemic,” Weber said. “What that means is that people are getting infected, people are dying, and our economy will be irreparably damaged—because masks are also a tool for getting the economy back.”
Atlanta resident Ashleigh Ikemoto recently contracted COVID-19 following two recent trips to Lowe’s and Publix, where she said few people were wearing masks and social distancing. “It spreads so quickly and easily and all we need to do is wear a mask for a few months and we’re done. So, it’s frustrating to have that not done but actively fought against,” she said, adding she hasn’t even touched her mailbox since contracting the virus.
Physician’s assistant and East Atlanta resident Elena Nava-Montefusco, 31, has been on the front lines in both Georgia and New York, where she said people seemed to take the virus more seriously by wearing masks.
She said Kemp’s order “undercuts the authority of people who are actually trying to do good for the public. I feel powerless.”
Nava-Montefusco added that she would like to see more people willing to at least wear a mask—and consequences if they’re not. “I’m not talking jail time or arrest, but some sort of fine. I would like to see more people protected.”
As for Sirkin, Kemp’s lawsuit left him flabbergasted.
“The problem here has been at every step of the way, the administrations in charge in a lot of the places that are suffering have not just failed to act, but have actively made the situation worse,” Sirkin told The Daily Beast. “So, it’s not that they did nothing. They did worse than nothing. They actively contributed to making the situation worse. And that’s what Kemp is doing here.”