Local mask orders give Georgia businesses enforcement cover

Decatur vintage clothing store owner Christopher Brown says the majority of customers at his LFXG store have no problem wearing face masks to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus. A growing number of businesses and local governments are requiring masks.

Decatur vintage clothing store owner Christopher Brown’s LFXG store was ahead of many businesses in the state when he required customers to wear masks a month before city officials there in July joined about about a dozen other Georgia local governments that mandate face coverings in public.

Mask policies in businesses remain a source of tension as owners continue to balance their need to get customers in the door again and keep everyone safe within public health guidelines that aim to contain the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Wednesday, the importance of wearing masks and the role that businesses play in requiring people to wear them was underscored in guidance issued by the American Association of Medical Colleges. Urging that mask-wearing become the new normal, the association said that businesses need to lead efforts to require mask-wearing indoors no matter how much they are limiting the number of people allowed in.

Georgia business owners say it’s important to them for customers to wear masks even if it invites an occasional confrontation. 

Brown said it’s nice to have a city-endorsed mask requirement to back up his own store policies designed to keep himself and customers as safe as possible. He implemented his store’s mask policy when it reopened in early June, about five weeks before Decatur passed its face covering order.

“I have family members at home that I don’t want to bring it back to,” he said. “I’ve got a young son, and it’s a real thing, so we have to take it seriously.”

A growing number of national retailers are requiring customers to wear masks. 

Savannah became the first Georgia city to mandate masks in public when its mayor issued an executive order in late June. Shortly after that, Atlanta, Decatur, Athens-Clarke, DeKalb County, Augusta, and a handful of other local governments in Georgia followed. Gov. Brian Kemp sued Atlanta officials after Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms went beyond a mask requirement to also impose restrictions on restaurants and other businesses that exceeded his emergency order. That dispute is now in court-ordered mediation.

While local governments in Georgia started requiring masks in public since late June, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported July 27 that law enforcement agencies in those jurisdictions had yet to issue a citation for violating the local order

Kemp’s most recent executive order on July 31 strongly encourages mask-wearing, but bans cities from requiring them.

“The fight against COVID-19 continues, and these executive orders reaffirm our commitment to protect the lives and livelihoods of all Georgians,” Kemp said while extending the statewide public emergency. “As our state ramps up testing, expands hospital surge capacity, and provides staffing, supplies, and resources to cities and counties throughout Georgia, we urge local officials to enforce the rules and restrictions detailed in these orders.”

Businesses adapt to face new normal of mask-wearing 

Academy Coffee ATL did record business in February only to slump in March as the pandemic gutted many businesses and tossed more than 1 million Georgians out of work by April.

Academy’s owner Connan Moody said he didn’t make any significant changes after the city order to wear face masks. The coffee shop doesn’t allow customers inside its dining area; instead, people pick up lattes and espressos at a table set up outside.

It is easier for a store owner to require people to cover their faces inside his business with the enforcement of a local government standing behind him, Moody said.

“Many people don’t necessarily have the strength and conviction or want to have that reputation, and having that backing makes it easier for everyone,” he said. 

In recent weeks, it’s getting harder to find a place to shop or even dine out without wearing a mask at the entrance. Walmart and supermarket giant Kroger are two of the biggest retailers to require customers to cover their faces inside their stores. 

Some offer masks to shoppers who arrive at their doors without wearing one. Meanwhile in Georgia, businesses are being recommended to post signs based on a new law that says customers cannot hold the store liable if they catch the virus while there. 

In mid-July, the National Retail Federation endorsed the wearing of face masks at all of their members’ locations. 

Kemp’s order that encourages but does not require masks gives business owners the flexibility to decide which approach is best to take, said Thomas Beussee, executive director of the 50,000-member Georgia Retail Association.

“I’d like to believe the better angels of fellow Georgians that everyone will do the right thing,” he said. “Whether you have a private business mandate, a local mask mandate, or statewide mask mandate, you’re always going to have folks out there that are going to be contrarian for the sake of being contrary … but I’d say, by and large, most people that I’ve seen are compliant.”

When Savannah Mayor Van Johnson issued his order requiring masks in public at the end of June, he told Kemp in a letter that the city’s emergency order is in line with the governor’s goal to keep residents safe throughout the pandemic. 

Johnson said the city is following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s advice that face coverings can slow down the infection rate as businesses along the Georgia coast struggle to stay open

Wright Square Cafe owner Gary Hall said his downtown Savannah restaurant has signs posted urging customers to wear masks, but hasn’t forced customers to wear them for fear he’ll run them off at a time he worries about going out of business. 

He’s happy that about 90% of his customers wear them without prodding.

“I support the mask mandate by our mayor,” Hall said. “I’m glad he did it and I’m not a fan of his at all. But I think he’s done the right thing for us in our region.”

And for the Last Resort Grill, Athens-Clarke County’s July 7 order requiring masks paired well with its re-opening of a much more spread out seating area and a parking lot turned large outdoor patio. The downtown restaurant requires customers to wear a mask until they’re seated, anytime they’re moving around the restaurant and whenever their server is at their table.

Stanley Dunlap
Stanley Dunlap has covered government and politics for news outlets in Georgia and Tennessee for the past decade. At The (Macon) Telegraph he told readers about Macon-Bibb County’s challenges implementing its recent consolidation, with a focus on ways the state Legislature determines the fate of local communities. He used open records requests to break a story of a $400 million pension sweetheart deal a county manager steered to a friendly consultant. The Georgia Associated Press Managing Editors named Stanley a finalist for best deadline reporting for his story on the death of Gregg Allman and best beat reporting for explanatory articles on the 2018 Macon-Bibb County budget deliberations. The Tennessee Press Association honored him for his reporting on the disappearance of Holly Bobo, which became a sensational murder case that generated national headlines.