Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp signed an executive order Wednesday night explicitly banning cities from enacting their own mask mandates, even as the state experiences a sharp rise in coronavirus cases and other Republican governors are turning to mask orders to try to quell the surge.
Kemp’s order voids existing mask mandates in more than a dozen cities or counties, while also extending other coronavirus social-distancing restrictions statewide.
The Republican governor had previously tried to ban cities and counties from passing any coronavirus restrictions that went further than Georgia’s guidelines. But many cities, including Atlanta, defied him by passing mask mandates anyway, arguing it was essential to flatten the curve. Kemp’s new order “strongly encourages” masks.
Local officials who had issued mask mandates as hospitals filled up were outraged Wednesday night as Kemp overrode their judgment. The order came on the same day Georgia recorded its second-highest number of coronavirus cases since the start of the pandemic, logging 3,871 cases and 37 deaths
“It is officially official. Governor Kemp does not give a damn about us,” Savannah Mayor Van Johnson, D, who was the first local official to issue a mask mandate, wrote on Twitter. “Every man and woman for himself/herself. Ignore the science and survive the best you can. In #Savannah, we will continue to keep the faith and follow the science. Masks will continue to be available!”
Kemp order comes as other Republican governors have recently abandoned their previous opposition to mask mandates in the interest of public health.
Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey, R, was among them on Wednesday, saying that while she wished people didn’t “have to be ordered to do what is in your own best interest,” she felt a mask order could not wait any longer.
“We’re almost to the point where our hospital ICUs are overwhelmed,” Ivey said at a news conference. “Folks, the numbers just do not lie.”
Like Kemp, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, R, and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, R, previously tried to block cities and counties from issuing their own mask orders — but both have since relented. Abbott issued a mask mandate for most counties earlier this month; Ducey stopped short of requiring masks statewide, but allowed cities and counties to go forward with mask mandates last month.
Now, critics in Georgia are wondering why Kemp is doubling down in the other direction instead.
“What he continues to do is downplay not only the challenge to Georgians, but the deaths of Georgians,” Stacey Abrams, Kemp’s Democratic challenger in the 2018 gubernatorial race, said on MSNBC. “More than 3,000 Georgians have perished, disproportionately black and brown Georgians. And he continues to fiddle while Rome burns.”
Kemp’s office on Wednesday emphasized that the governor is still asking Georgians to voluntarily wear masks.
“We’ve been clear in previous orders and statements that local mask mandates are unenforceable,” Candice Broce, Kemp’s communications director, told the Augusta Chronicle. “The Governor has encouraged Georgians to wear them voluntarily for months now.”
Kemp’s resistance to mask mandates had already been creating a deep rift between him and some high-profile officials, namely Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms (D). Local officials who enacted mask mandates viewed Kemp’s encouragement that people wear masks — and the lack of specific ban on mask mandates — as permission to legally pass their own mandates.
But after Bottoms issued her order requiring face masks in public, Kemp’s office called it “unenforceable.”
“If the Mayor wants to flatten the curve in Atlanta, she should start enforcing the current provisions of the Governor’s orders,” the July 10 statement said — apparently encouraging Bottoms to adopt a more relaxed approach as she reported the state capital was in a crisis. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, D, offered to help the city.
Russell Edwards, the Democratic mayor pro tempore in Kemp’s hometown of Athens, Ga., called on the governor to resign on Wednesday night, saying that even as hospitalizations rise, Kemp “continues to thwart and undermine the efforts of others.”
“Brian Kemp fails to do right. And that’s putting it lightly,” Edwards wrote on Twitter. “His order today sabotages protections, banning local governments from requiring mask-wearing. Words fail to describe this monstrous behavior.”
Kemp’s order comes two weeks after he joined U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams in a campaign at stops around the state to encourage Georgians to wear masks. The governor appealed to sports fans, saying, “If you want some college football this fall and other sports, wear your mask for the next few weeks.”
But Kemp has described mask requirements as “a bridge too far,” fearing the measure would lack public support, as he told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution last month.
“There’s some people that just do not want to wear a mask. I’m sensitive to that from a political environment of having people buy into that and creating other issues out there,” he said. “But it’s definitely a good idea.”