Gov. Kemp stands firm on no mask mandate; COVID-19 hospitalizations up by 39 percent

Confusion of governor's executive orders leaves many asking, who enforces them?

ATLANTA — Calling Atlanta’s mask mandates “unenforceable” and “disastrous,” Gov. Brian Kemp defended his lawsuit Friday that asks a judge to stop them.

The governor said he thinks the city’s mandates could cause calamity to the economy.

The suit asks a judge to stop two executive orders: one is the mask mandate, and the other is the rollback to Phase 1 of the city’s reopening plan.

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Kemp said the phase rollback is hurting small businesses.

“We will fight to stop the reckless actions and put people over pandemic politics,” Kemp said. “While we all agree that wearing a mask is effective, I’m confident that Georgians don’t need a mandate to do the right thing.”

One Thursday, Kemp announced that he was suing Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and the entire City Council over the mayor’s executive orders — that she said were only “recommendations” — for Atlanta residents to wear masks, and over the city rollback to Phase 1 of its reopening plan.

That phase asks citizens to stay at home except for essential trips, and asks restaurants to limit business to delivery and takeout.

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“Mayor Bottoms’ mask mandate cannot be enforced, but their decision to shutter businesses and undermine economic growth is devastating,” Kemp said.

Atlanta City Council member Amir Farokhi spoke to Channel 2′s Richard Elliot on Friday. He is one of those specifically named in the suit.

“I think I speak for all my colleagues and the mayor by saying it’s quite perplexing. The logic of it doesn’t make any sense,” Farokhi said.

As Bottoms pointed out in a Tweet Thursday night, Farokhi said the executive orders are just recommendations, and that the city had no intention of sending police out to enforce them.

He told Elliot that’s why he believes Kemp’s lawsuit has no merit.

“I think, at best, this is petty political theater. At worst, this is wanton neglect of the public health of 10.6 million Georgians,” Farokhi said.

Part of the lawsuit said the ambiguity between a mandate, an order and a recommendation are what’s causing confusion in Atlanta’s business community.

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

Local governments did not have the authority to enforce COVID-19 rules under the governor’s original order — just the state police.

In April, a new order expanded that power to sheriffs.

Now, the governor’s staff told Channel 2 investigative reporter Justin Gray that the language in the most recent executive order gives local governments authority to police social distance violations.

“They have not been doing that,” Kemp said.

Brookhaven Mayor John Ernst told Gray that it's true that they haven't issued many citations to businesses by design.

“We’ve been doing it on a complaint-based system. We don’t have officers going in knocking on doors taking out tape measures,” Ernst said.

As battle brews between governor, Atlanta mayor over masks -- who truly can enforce them?

The mayor said aggressive policing of social distance rules would have a more negative impact than a mask mandate on businesses.

“Everyone could end up doing that which would end up shutting down businesses, which really no one wants,” Ernst said.

Georgia state law professor Clark Cunningham said this is confusing even for experts like him.

“I don’t know how people are supposed to understand these things,” Cunningham said.

Cunningham said he does not believe the original emergency act passed by the legislature gives the governor power to interfere in local ordinances.

“He has to explain how that order promotes public health, protects people, prevents the spread of the virus. If it doesn’t, I don’t think he’s speaking with the authority of the public health emergency behind him,” Cunningham said.

The governor’s order says after two citations for violating social distancing rules, a business can be shut down.

Kemp said Friday that local leaders have that power and he is challenging them to follow through.

Friday’s news conference was the first time in weeks that Kemp addressed the state’s response to COVID-19.

Georgia Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Kathleen Toomey said COVID-19 hospitalizations are up by 39% since last week. Toomey also said the state’s positivity rate is up to 13.6%, which she said reflects community spread.

During the news conference Friday, Kemp laid out what he called four simple but effective actions that he wants all Georgians to follow for the next four weeks.

“One: Wear a mask when out in public or when you cannot distance yourself inside. Two: Practice physical distancing. Stay six feet from those you don’t live with. Three: Continue to wash your hands throughout the day with warm soap and hot water. And four: Follow the executive order and heed the guidance provided by public health officials. If we do these four simple but effective actions on a daily basis, we will make incredible progress in the fight against COVID-19,” Kemp said.

There are more than 170 DPH testing sites statewide, but Toomey said we need more testing resources because some people are waiting weeks for results.

Toomey said the department is focused on ramping up more testing and providing personal protective equipment to school districts who need them.

Gov. Kemp continues to encourage masks but not mandate them