Mixed Signals: Mayors and lawmakers confused by Kemp’s mask stance

Gov. Brian Kemp (left) and Georgia Public Health Commissioner Dr. Kathleen Toomey (right) embarked on a statewide tour to promote mask use during the early months of the pandemic.

(The Center Square) – Some officials in Georgia said they are shocked and confused about Gov. Brian Kemp’s executive order that blocks local governments from requiring residents to wear masks.

Senate Minority Whip Harold Jones II, D-Augusta, said when he voted to allow Kemp to have more authority during the COVID-19 pandemic, he thought it would ensure blanket safety precautions for all Georgians.

“Local governments have to act in a way that is consistent to make sure citizens are safe,” Jones said.

However, Kemp’s current executive order is inconsistent when it comes to mask requirements and offers fewer protections for Georgians amid a spike in COVID-19 cases, Jones said.

The House and Senate voted March 16 to allow Kemp to take action during the declared public health emergency without state legislative clearances.

Kemp’s newest order, which took effect Thursday, prohibits state or local ordinances that are more restrictive on face coverings than his order. He has gone as far as suing Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and the Atlanta City Council over Bottoms’ executive order that mandates wearing a mask in the city.

“Instead of issuing mandates that are confusing and unenforceable, I’m asking all local leaders to enforce the current executive order,” Kemp said Friday. “Enforce the rules that we have put in place to keep employees and customers safe – and local businesses.”

The general provisions of Kemp’s executive order “strongly encouraged” residents and visitors to wear masks “outside of their homes or places of residence.”

Still, the order “requires” workers in restaurants, salons, barbershops, massage parlors and entertainment venues to “wear face coverings at all times.” It also allows school districts to mandate masks for workers and students.

The Center Square reached out to several Republican members of the General Assembly regarding Kemp’s executive orders but did not get a response. House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, declined to comment, citing the ongoing litigation between Kemp and Atlanta officials.

Sen. Gloria Butler, D-Stone Mountain, said the Atlanta lawsuit is a waste of taxpayer money that could help unemployed Georgians who are in need. Masks mandates could help, not harm, businesses, she said.

Butler wishes she could redo her March vote that gave Kemp the expanded powers.

“Mayors and local governments have a grasp on what’s happening in their community,” Butler said. “If we don’t need laws, then why not just ask people not to speed, wear a seatbelt or pay taxes?”

Kemp told local governments to use social and local media to urge residents to follow social distancing requirements and to “build support for wearing masks.”

Bottoms told CNN on Friday she believes Kemp’s lawsuit is a personal attack with political motives.

Other cities and counties in Georgia have imposed masks mandates, including Augusta, Savannah, Brookhaven and Athens-Clarke County.

Augusta Mayor Hardie Davis told reporters that local leaders are shocked Kemp would preempt their ability to protect residents.

“When you look at the fact that executive orders are implemented to help slow the spread of the virus, what we can’t do is use executive orders to divide the state of Georgia and take an apolitical public health crisis and turn it into a political football,” Davis said.

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