By Beau Evans
Capitol Beat News Service
Gov. Brian Kemp renewed orders late Wednesday to keep Georgia’s current social distancing and safety rules imposed through the end of July to discourage the spread of coronavirus in place for businesses, schools and public gatherings.
The latest executive order also contains new language requiring that any masking mandates put in place by city or county governments that go beyond the state’s voluntary measures “are suspended.”
That move could set up a legal battle between Kemp and local officials in Atlanta, Savannah, Athens and several other communities in Georgia where mask requirements were recently imposed.
The governor’s order arrived hours before a slate of COVID-19 restrictions were set to expire at Wednesday’s end. Kemp has executive authority to issue emergency orders through at least Aug. 11.
As of Wednesday afternoon, nearly 128,000 people in Georgia had tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel strain of coronavirus that sparked a global pandemic. It had killed 3,091 Georgians.
While a host of Georgia businesses have been allowed to reopen since May, they are still required by the governor’s orders to abide by several measures to keep people separated from each other, maintain clean surfaces and send workers home if they show symptoms of coronavirus.
A shelter-in-place order has been in effect since late March for Georgians in long-term care facilities and those with chronic medical conditions including lung disease, moderate to severe asthma, severe heart disease, compromised immune systems, severe obesity and diabetes.
In particular, large gatherings in Georgia have been limited to no more than 50 people if they cannot keep at least six feet apart. That applies to restaurants, bars and other popular gathering spots.
Conventions, sports stadiums and performance venues were allowed to reopen July 1 under distancing, sanitizing and signage rules. But Kemp has suggested he could pull the plug on fall sports like football if people disregard wearing masks.
Kemp’s new order says any city or county rules “requiring persons to wear face coverings, masks, face shields” or other kinds of protective equipment in public “are suspended to the extent that they are more restrictive than” the state’s guidelines.
Asked whether the new language is aimed specifically at preventing local governments from imposing mask mandates, Kemp’s office reiterated the governor’s previous position on the matter.
“We’ve been clear in previous orders and statements that local mask mandates are unenforceable,” said Candice Broce, Kemp’s communications director. “The Governor has encouraged Georgians to wear them voluntarily for months now.”
Mask-wearing in Georgia has been a testy subject in recent weeks. Kemp remains under pressure to impose mandatory masking requirements as positive COVID-19 cases continue rising in the state, and several cities have ordered residents to wear facial coverings in public.
The governor’s latest order came shortly Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey placed her state under a mask mandate through July. Several other states have also required masking.
Kemp’s statewide rules for Georgia so far have “strongly encouraged” voluntary mask-wearing even as many health experts and local elected officials have urged him to take a mandatory approach or at least let counties and cities set their own masking rules.
To date, Kemp’s orders on COVID-19 have required city and county governments to adopt the state’s rules rather than impose their own.
Last week, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms issued a citywide masking requirement that argued the governor’s statewide orders do not explicitly address mask mandates, posing a legal loophole for local governments to adopt their own measures.
Kemp’s office has dismissed the Atlanta mask mandate as unenforceable.
Savannah Mayor Van Johnson pressed Kemp again Wednesday to grant local governments leeway to require public masking. He said in a news conference the city’s mask mandate has prompted residents and visitors alike to wear masks amid the summer season.
“It’s been very clear more people are wearing masks,” Johnson said. “I think sometimes people need a rule.”
Capitol Beat is a nonprofit news service operated by the Georgia Press Educational Foundation that provides coverage of state government through Georgia Press Association members, such as the White County News.