Half of the coronavirus cases in Fulton County (where about 90 percent of our city’s residents live) have been diagnosed in just the past few weeks. In College Park, a city of 15,000 people, more than 200 people have been diagnosed with covid-19. I personally know individuals who have spent weeks in the hospital suffering from complications of the virus; I know others who have died. Between 13 and 15 percent of the tests in our state have come back positive in recent weeks, which would indicate a far higher number of infections than we’ve actually measured.
With cases on the rise, elected officials needed to do whatever we could to increase the numbers of people wearing masks in public. We’d tried to promote the messages from public health officials recommending masks, and to stress their importance whenever we could — but it hadn’t been enough.
So on July 10, the College Park City Council passed a mask ordinance. Three of our four council members voted in favor; one chose to abstain. We viewed our mandate as a supplement to the governor’s executive orders, and within the rights given to cities by the Georgia Constitution and by statute. We saw our ordinance as a way to protect our citizens’ health and livelihoods. We didn’t care whether you wore a mask in your car, while walking your dog alone or when you were with members of your household. But if you were in public settings with a lot of other people around, we needed you to take this extra precaution. A first infraction would result in a written warning. The second would incur a $50 fine — less than most traffic tickets. The ordinance wasn’t meant to be a punishment, and it certainly wasn’t meant to generate revenue. It was meant to support our businesses in protecting the health and safety of their patrons and employees. It was intended to educate people and encourage them to do their part to slow the spread of this virus. And although some say any ordinance infringes on their rights, most constituents’ reactions were positive.
We knew the governor’s office would issue an executive order the following week, because an earlier order was due to expire, but we didn’t know what it would contain. When Kemp explicitly suspended local mask mandates on July 15 — and even attempted to prevent municipalities from requiring face coverings in our city-owned buildings — I couldn’t make sense of it. We didn’t necessarily expect the governor to require masks throughout Georgia, as other states have done. But we did think, at a minimum, he’d express support for local governments setting policies that worked for their communities. We certainly did not think he would attempt to take away our ability to require masks in our own buildings, putting our municipal workers at risk. After all, he has allowed school districts to decide what’s best for their workers, students and families, which I think is a wise move. We value home rule very highly in Georgia. It surprised me that Kemp’s order attempted to erode local control. (Later that week, the governor sued the city of Atlanta over its mask mandates and other pandemic restrictions; on Thursday, a judge ordered the parties to mediate the case.)
College Park has been economically devastated by the pandemic. We rely heavily on tourism and hospitality. We have the second-largest convention center in the state, which now sits mostly empty. We just built an arena that is home to the College Park Skyhawks (the Atlanta Hawks’ G League team) and the WNBA’s Atlanta Dream; the Skyhawks’ season was cut short by the pandemic, and the WNBA has decided to play all its games in Florida. If you look at last year’s books, our city took in more than $1 million in hotel and motel tax revenue in the month of April; this year, we brought in $122,000. I would love nothing more than for our economy to restart, but for that to happen, people need to feel safe and be safe when they gather in public spaces.
My city saw our mask ordinance as a vital part of that solution — a way to balance economic and public health concerns. These needs don’t have to compete, if we take effective precautions: maintain social distancing, sanitize often and, yes, wear masks. We all pay some price to participate in society. Children cannot attend public school without the proper vaccinations, and I can’t walk into a restaurant shirtless. A mask requirement is a small price to pay to protect everyone’s liberty to move safely through our community.
Without relief from the county or the state, there’s only so much our local government can do. We don’t have the deep pockets of the bigger cities in Georgia. Still, we instituted hazard pay for our workers on the front lines, such as police, firefighters and public works employees. We suspended utility shut-offs to give local households some relief, but that has put the city well over $1 million in arrears. Every day, citizens contact me, saying they’re concerned about the lags in testing or reporting that their landlord is threatening them with eviction. Their anxiety is real. But we can’t give anybody any concrete assurances. So much of the pandemic response is out of our hands. The mask ordinance is one thing we could do: a small intervention that could make a real difference in preventing the spread of disease, saving lives and making people feel safer.
With the governor’s most recent executive order, we don’t even have that. It’s bewildering to me that masks have become so politicized. Kemp himself has strongly encouraged everyone to wear masks while in public. Scientists are largely united in saying masks work to limit the spread of the coronavirus, and in a July 14 report, the White House Coronavirus Task Force recommended that Georgia mandate the wearing of “cloth face coverings outside the home,” statewide. Our neighbor, Alabama, adopted a statewide mask mandate, and so have Arkansas, Ohio and Indiana; Mississippi has required the wearing of masks in hot spots. Adoption of mask mandates throughout the country, in both conservative and liberal jurisdictions, shows this is an issue of public health, not politics.
I have no desire to fight with the governor, or anyone else, about this issue; I simply want to promote the health and safety of our citizens. College Park, just like any other community in our great state, should have the ability to exercise home rule and determine what’s best for our residents. Lives depend on it.
As told to Post editor Sophia Nguyen.