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Letters to the Editor • Opinion
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Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp welcomes President Trump upon his arrival at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport on Wednesday. (Erik S. Lesser/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) on Thursday sued to stop Atlanta from enforcing some of its coronavirus-related rules, including its mandate to wear a face covering in public, even as the state experiences a sharp rise in coronavirus cases.

The lawsuit alleges that Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms (D) lacked the authority to implement a mask requirement and that she must obey Kemp’s executive orders, including one signed Wednesday that explicitly bans municipalities from enacting their own face-covering ordinances.

Kemp’s lawsuit also asks the court to bat down Bottoms’s July 10 order that the city return to Phase 1 of reopening, which requires that people return to sheltering at home and that restaurants close their dining rooms.

Kemp’s most recent executive order attempts to void existing mask mandates in more than a dozen cities or counties, while also extending other coronavirus social distancing restrictions statewide.

The governor had previously tried to ban cities and counties from passing any coronavirus restrictions that went further than Georgia’s guidelines. But many cities defied him by passing mask mandates anyway, arguing that it was essential to flatten the curve. Kemp’s orders have “strongly encouraged” masks.

Local officials who had issued mask mandates as hospitals filled up were outraged this week as Kemp overrode their judgment. The governor’s order came on the same day Georgia recorded its second-highest number of coronavirus cases since the start of the pandemic, logging 3,871 cases and 37 deaths.

Before Kemp filed his lawsuit Thursday, Bottoms said in an online news conference that his order would not stop Atlanta from enforcing its mask ordinance.

“I am not afraid of the city being sued, and I’ll put our policies up against anyone’s, any day of the week,” she said.

Savannah Mayor Van Johnson (D), who was the first local official to issue a mask mandate, spoke out strongly against Kemp’s attempt to invalidate the requirement.

“It is officially official. Governor Kemp does not give a damn about us,” Johnson wrote on Twitter. “Every man and woman for himself/herself. Ignore the science and survive the best you can. In #Savannah, we will continue to keep the faith and follow the science. Masks will continue to be available!”

Kemp’s order comes as other Republican governors have recently abandoned their previous opposition to mask mandates in the interest of public health.

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey was among them on Wednesday, saying that although she wished people didn’t “have to be ordered to do what is in your own best interest,” she thought a mask order could not wait any longer. Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson followed suit the next day, saying hospitalizations and deaths in the state are “numbers that speak for themselves and indicate that we need to do more.”

When states first began lifting coronavirus lockdown measures in the summer, tensions around face masks had been mounting since the CDC first recommended them. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Sarah Hashemi/The Washington Post)

Like Kemp, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, both Republicans, previously tried to block cities and counties from issuing their own mask orders — but both have since relented. Abbott issued a mask mandate for most counties earlier this month; Ducey stopped short of requiring masks statewide but allowed cities and counties to go forward with mask mandates last month.

Now, critics in Georgia are wondering why Kemp is doubling down in the other direction instead.

“What he continues to do is downplay not only the challenge to Georgians, but the deaths of Georgians,” Stacey Abrams, Kemp’s Democratic challenger in the 2018 gubernatorial race, said Wednesday on MSNBC. “More than 3,000 Georgians have perished, disproportionately black and brown Georgians. And he continues to fiddle while Rome burns.”

Kemp’s office on Wednesday emphasized that the governor is still asking Georgians to voluntarily wear masks.

“We’ve been clear in previous orders and statements that local mask mandates are unenforceable,” Candice Broce, Kemp’s communications director, told the Augusta Chronicle. “The governor has encouraged Georgians to wear them voluntarily for months now.”

Kemp’s resistance to mask mandates had already been creating a deep rift between him and some high-profile officials, chiefly Bottoms. Local officials who enacted mask mandates viewed Kemp’s encouragement that people wear masks — and the lack of a specific ban on mask mandates — as permission to legally pass their own mandates.

But after Bottoms issued her July 8 order requiring masks in public, Kemp’s office called it “unenforceable.”

“If the Mayor wants to flatten the curve in Atlanta, she should start enforcing the current provisions of the Governor’s orders,” the July 10 statement said — apparently encouraging Bottoms to adopt a more relaxed approach as she reported the state capital was in a crisis. New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) offered to help the city.

Russell Edwards, the Democratic mayor pro tempore in Kemp’s hometown of Athens, Ga., called on the governor to resign on Wednesday night, saying that even as hospitalizations rise, Kemp “continues to thwart and undermine the efforts of others.”

“@BrianKempGA fails to do right. And that’s putting it lightly,” Edwards wrote on Twitter. “His order today sabotages protections, banning local governments from requiring mask-wearing. Words fail to describe this monstrous behavior.”

Kemp’s order comes two weeks after he joined U.S. Surgeon General Jerome M. Adams in a campaign at stops around the state to encourage Georgians to wear masks. The governor appealed to sports fans, saying, “If you want some college football this fall and other sports, wear your mask for the next few weeks.”

But Kemp has described mask requirements as a “bridge too far,” fearing the measure would lack public support, as he told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution last month.

“There’s some people that just do not want to wear a mask. I’m sensitive to that from a political environment of having people buy into that and creating other issues out there,” he said. “But it’s definitely a good idea.”

Coronavirus: What you need to know

Where do things stand? See the latest covid numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people.

The state of public health: Conservative and libertarian forces have defanged much of the nation’s public health system through legislation and litigation as the world staggers into the fourth year of covid.

Grief and the pandemic: A Washington Post reporter covered the coronavirus — and then endured the death of her mother from covid-19. She offers a window into grief and resilience.

Would we shut down again? What will the United States do the next time a deadly virus comes knocking on the door?

Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot. New federal data shows adults who received the updated shots cut their risk of being hospitalized with covid-19 by 50 percent. Here’s guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.

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