One day after Gov. Brian Kemp sued the mayor and city council of Atlanta over its mandatory mask rule, he addressed the state at the Georgia capitol. Kemp’s Friday press conference focused on the lawsuit against Atlanta and Georgia’s recent surge in COVID-19 cases.
The state government is at odds with some local governments that have implemented mandatory mask rules. There is no statewide mask mandate, and Kemp’s executive orders outlaw any local ordinance that is more restrictive than the state’s. Some cities, however, instituted rules that made it mandatory for people to wear masks in certain conditions, starting with Savannah in late June. Athens instituted a mask rule last week.
Kemp said he asked local leaders to enforce the rules of the current executive order instead of local mandates that are “confusing and unenforceable.” He said local leaders should encourage wearing a mask but not require it.
“Now I know that many well-intentioned and well-informed Georgians want a mask mandate, and 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,” Kemp said.
He addressed the lawsuit filed yesterday against Atlanta city council and Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms. Bottoms reverted to phase one COVID-19 guidelines on July 10, which included a mandatory mask rule and restrictions on certain businesses. Kemp said Bottoms’ decision to close businesses in the city is economically “devastating.”
Kemp said the lack of a statewide mask mandate “is about protecting the livelihoods of our citizens.” Kemp cited Georgia’s unemployment rate of 7.5%, which is lower than California’s 17.5%. California has adopted more restrictions to prevent the spread of COVID-19 than Georgia has.
“This is not about masks. We all agree it’s good to wear a mask in the right situation,” Kemp said.
Athens will continue to enforce its mask mandate, Mayor Kelly Girtz said in an interview Thursday. He said Kemp’s lawsuit against Atlanta was disappointing.
“Georgia was at one point called the New South, and we considered ourselves head and shoulders above some of our neighbors, in terms of professionalism,” Girtz said. “Unfortunately, this speaks to a very different direction than that.”
The governor also addressed the state’s recent surge in COVID-19 cases. Kemp said over the last several weeks the state has seen a rise in cases and hospitalization rates, partly caused by the demonstrations protesting police brutality. Kemp said the protests sent a message to people that it was OK to gather in large crowds.
He urged people to wear a mask, keep 6 feet between themselves and others, wash hands throughout the day and follow his executive order and listen to public health officials.
Georgia Department of Public Health Commissioner Kathleen Toomey also discussed the recent surge in cases. Georgia’s COVID-19 test positivity — the rate of tests that come back positive out of total tests administered — is 13.6%, and hospitalizations are up 39%, she said.
Gwinnett, Fulton and DeKalb counties have the highest number of new cases over the past three weeks, accounting for nearly 26% of all new cases in the state. The DPH has seen outbreaks in places where there are many people gathering, including businesses, fraternity houses and churches.
Toomey said testing was up throughout the state to 14,000 specimens per day, but acknowledged Georgia needs more testing. Speed of testing results and lab capacity both need to be improved, she said. Some commercial labs are taking up to two weeks to get results back to patients, an “unacceptable” delay. She said the state is working to increase its testing capacity and bringing on an additional lab to improve test turnaround time.
Toomey also discussed the reopening of schools. Kemp and Toomey both said they want schools to reopen with in-person classes in the fall. She said schools will follow certain guidelines in the fall to prevent the spread of the virus, including working with the DPH to track COVID-19 cases.
Schools will receive shipments of personal protective equipment in the coming weeks, Toomey said. She said a single case of COVID-19 won’t shut a school down.
“We know and fully expect that there will be some cases of COVID among students and teachers, and we are doing everything we can to provide the resources needed to protect everyone in the school setting,” Toomey said.