ATLANTA -- Atlanta's mayor has signed an executive order mandating masks in Georgia's largest city, defying Gov. Brian Kemp's decision to strongly encourage but not require face coverings.
Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms on Wednesday signed the order requiring masks, which could set up a confrontation with the Republican Kemp. The order goes into effect immediately. The governor has already clashed with the mayor recently over policing issues, calling out the National Guard to protect state government offices after an 8-year-old girl was fatally shot by armed people at the site of a fast food restaurant where an Atlanta police officer shot and killed a Black man.
“We will continue to take active measures to help slow the spread of COVID-19 infections in Atlanta,” Bottoms said in a statement. “Public health experts overwhelmingly agree that wearing a face covering helps slow the spread of this sometimes deadly virus.”
The order also prohibits gatherings of more than 10 persons on city of Atlanta property.
Like a number of other local leaders in Georgia, Bottoms has unsuccessfully appealed to Kemp to change his order that local governments can't exceed the state's requirements.
“Other cities have taken the approach that they are going to defy the governor’s executive order. Savannah has done it, some other cities have done it, and Atlanta is going to do it today,” Bottoms told MSNBC in a Wednesday interview. “Because the fact of the matter is that COVID-19 is wreaking havoc on our cities, specifically black and brown communities with higher death rates.”
Spokespeople for Kemp did not immediately respond to requests for comment Wednesday. Kemp on Tuesday asked mayors and county commissioners to help him in a statewide push for voluntary masking.
“We don’t need a mandate to have Georgians do the right thing, but we do need to build strong, public support,” Kemp told mayors, according to prepared remarks released by his office.
The dispute over masks is escalating as the state again recorded new high numbers of daily confirmed cases and people hospitalized with COVID-19. The number of people in hospitals rose to more than 2,200 on Wednesday, while confirmed infections leaped by more than 3,400, bringing the state total to 104,000.
Officials across the state are increasingly voicing worries that hospitals are filling and government-run testing sites are being overrun.
Data released Wednesday showed that 82% of Georgia's critical care beds are in use, although not every patient in a critical care bed has COVID-19. In three of the state's 14 hospital regions, fewer than 6% of critical care beds were available, including Athens, Valdosta and Atlanta's northwest suburbs.
In suburban DeKalb and Gwinnett counties, officials are moving to extend hours at testing sites, saying there’s more demand than they can fill.
Atlanta would not be the first Georgia locality to mandate face coverings. Savannah and the Atlanta suburb of East Point were joined Tuesday by Athens-Clarke County. At least three other Atlanta suburbs — Fairburn, South Fulton and Doraville, are considering the move. DeKalb County CEO Michael Thurmond said Tuesday that he believes a mask mandate in his large suburban county would leave police in a legally impossible position of going against state law, but at least one DeKalb County commissioner wants a vote on the issue anyway.
Atlanta's move could be more difficult for Kemp to ignore, with the state Capitol, the governor's mansion and many state government agency headquarters inside the city. State universities earlier claimed state property was exempt from Savannah's mask order before they too decided to require masks. It's unclear if Kemp and state agencies might make the same claim about state property in Atlanta.
John Ernst, the mayor of the Atlanta suburb of Brookhaven, said he agrees with others saying police would have questionable legal authority to enforce a mask ban without permission from Kemp.
“Everyone is at a loss of what to do with this virus because of the hyperpolitical nature of what it's become," he said.
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