You might not be able to fight City Hall if there’s a mask sign at the entrance

Macon-Bibb County officials might consider requiring people to wear masks in public soon after Gov. Brian Kemp's weekend order opened some restrictions. Shoppers in a grocery store in July 2020 are shown here with mask-wearing customs. Credit Grant Blankenship/GPB

Albany was one of Georgia’s first COVID-19 hotspots last March, yet some visitors to area government buildings this summer still refused to follow local orders requiring people to wear face masks inside.

Albany Mayor Bo Dorough said Gov. Brian Kemp’s latest executive order clearing the way for local governments to regulate face coverings is an improvement over prior versions that tied the hands of local officials. Earlier Kemp orders, Dorough says, undermined the efforts of local officials in Dougherty County and other parts of the state where cities and counties passed mask requirements as an attempt to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Kemp’s newest guidance cleared the way for local officials to require face masks on government-owned property they control. It also gives local governments the ability to require mask-wearing more broadly if the county is affected by at least 100 COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents. But it gives business owners the choice of following local orders that people wear face coverings out in public.

On Monday, the Republican governor said that his new order is designed to “save lives, protect paychecks and safeguard personal freedoms.”

“I still believe a statewide mask mandate’s not the way to go, and I don’t think you have to have a mandate to get people to do the right thing,” Kemp said in a call with reporters to discuss the Democratic National Convention.

After the pandemic upended the lives of Georgians in mid-March, Kemp’s preferred approach has been to strongly encourage people to wear masks. Until changing course Saturday, Kemp’s most recent order explicitly banned cities and counties from taking a more restrictive approach.

“I just think it was wrong-headed to ever try to prevent local governments from taking precautions that local elected officials thought were appropriate to protect their constituents,” Dorough said.

Kemp’s new emergency order comes after his announcement last week that he is dropping his lawsuit against Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms for a citywide mask requirement and imposing restrictions on restaurants and other businesses.

Macon-Bibb County officials might be among the first to take action based on Kemp’s new rules. On Tuesday, Mayor Robert Reichert expects to propose a new requirement that will “better protect public health” in accordance with the governor’s new order, county spokesman Chris Floore said.

Reichert vetoed an ordinance requiring masks several weeks ago out of concern it was not enforceable

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. Some business owners who want customers and other visitors to wear masks say local ordinances help give them cover when they want to enforce face coverings.

Savannah became the first Georgia city to require masks in public and within shops, restaurants and other public places when the mayor issued an executive order in late June. Shortly after that, Atlanta, Decatur, DeKalb County, Augusta, Athens and a handful of other local governments in Georgia followed.

About 100 local governments adopted policies requiring masks while on government property, which appears to be a compromise Kemp approves of now.

Albany’s Dorough said the city’s attorney has advised that a broader mask rule would run afoul of the governor. Instead, he said he hopes Kemp will join the other governors who have issued statewide orders.

“The governor is prohibiting local governments from requiring it and for crying out loud, the executive order requires people to maintain social distance, requires people to exercise the hygiene precautions. It doesn’t say, ‘We encourage you.’

“So, the third precaution that we’re all familiar with is wearing a face mask. Why don’t you just require wearing a face mask?” said Dorough, who is also an attorney.

Augusta Mayor Hardie Davis called Kemp’s recent order “a step in the right direction” when asked about it Monday on GPB’s Political Rewind. But he stood by his authority to require face coverings. 

“I want to be cautious though in terms of suggesting that the governor has promulgated authority over to us that we, by the Legislature, already have, and that’s a critical point,” he said. “But this is a step in the right direction. We, as local leaders are the ones who are closest to the ground. We’re on the battlefield every single day and we see what’s taking place.” 

Athens-Clarke County Mayor Kelly Girtz said he expects the county to make some minor changes to its face masks ordinance to align with Kemp’s new version. 

“Largely, I expect we will continue to heavily promote mask use, including with our ordinance, and our ongoing distribution of masks, as well as in our public messaging,” he said.

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.
Jill Nolin
Jill Nolin has spent nearly 15 years reporting on state and local government in four states, focusing on policy and political stories and tracking public spending. She has spent the last five years chasing stories in the halls of Georgia’s Gold Dome, earning recognition for her work showing the impact of rising opioid addiction on the state’s rural communities. She is a graduate of Troy University.