Georgia’s COVID mask and vaccine drama on full display at Athens City Hall

By: - August 5, 2021 1:00 am

As the Athens/Clarke Commission voted to institute a mask mandate, unmasked young people crowded the streets outside. Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder

If you’re heading to Athens, don’t forget to pack your mask.

Athens-Clarke County joined Savannah and Atlanta in reinstating COVID-19 restrictions late Tuesday night amid increasing concerns over the delta variant and lagging vaccination rates. The order went into effect Wednesday morning.

The unified city and county government separately approved a vaccine mandate for government workers, making it likely the first county in the state to do so, according to the Association of County Commissioners of Georgia.

“In addition to the masking requirement, we are in discussions regarding further incentivization of vaccination,” said Athens-Clarke County Mayor Kelly Girtz. “As much as one would wish for ideal human behavior, if the combination of carrots and sticks is helpful in providing a safe environment, then we will work to wield them successfully.”

Girtz said details on those incentives will be made public within a week.

The mayor cited rising infection and hospitalization rates in calling for the measure – cases are up tenfold over the past six weeks, and ICU beds in the area are 80% full.

The mask order is triggered when the county reports 100 cases per 100,000 population in a week. Masks will no longer be mandatory if cases fall below that level, or if at least 80% of the population is vaccinated.

Athens Mayor Kelly Girtz. Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder

In the seven days ending on Monday, the average number of cases in Clarke County was 147.28 per 100,000, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Businesses can opt out by posting a notice at the door, but in all other public buildings, masks will be the rule. Violators will first be given a warning and an opportunity to mask up, then they could be fined up to $25 for a first offense and up to $50 for subsequent offences.

Experts agree that vaccines are safe and effective and efforts like masking and avoiding crowds will help reduce the spread of COVID-19 among the unvaccinated, but many remain skeptical of the safety measures.

Athens resident John Montarella was one of dozens of mostly unmasked people who piled into the commission chambers Tuesday night. He told the commission he is moving out of the county in disgust over some of their actions, including approving a temporary government-sanctioned homeless encampment as well as the mask and vaccine mandates.

A crowd packs in to the Athens-Clarke County commission chambers. Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder

“George Orwell said sanity is not statistical,” he said. “For anyone sitting at home who thinks this is insane, such as masking and enforced vaccinations, it is, you’re not alone. It is insane to mask children, who are not affected by this disease. It is literal insanity and disgusting. I think it is a sign of a sick society that you should cover the face of children who are literally learning how to read the face of other humans and interact.”

“You’re a petty tyrant,” Montarella shouted at Girtz as he left the podium.

Immediately following Montarella’s comments, Commissioner Russell Edwards entered the chamber with a large box of masks and offered them to the public. He was met with laughter and calls of “No thanks, we’re good.”

“Who cares about other people,” a masked person said sarcastically.

Rising tensions

Much to the dismay of medical professionals, masks and vaccines have become a cultural battleground, and with many of Georgia’s K-12 students already back in class and the rest returning soon, schools have so far seen the fiercest fighting.

On Monday, Fulton County Schools announced it will adopt a policy similar to that in Athens-Clarke County, mandating masks in schools located in cities where infection exceeds 100 cases per 100,000 residents.

Some parents have expressed frustration with that decision, in part because it is confusing, said state Sen. Michelle Au, a physician and a Democrat whose district includes part of Fulton County.

“It’s not a mandate, first of all, it’s like a constantly changing set of guidelines,” she said. “The issue that I’ve heard from a lot of people is that the mask guidelines are confusing because they’ve sort of gone back and forth, in peoples’ perception, several times. This, I think, is even more confusing than that, because it’s completely based on local data. I think the Fulton rules are based on case numbers per municipality, which is confusing, because even within the same school system, you could have schools with multiple different masking guidelines.”

Athens-Clarke County’s policy does not share that flaw because it is countywide, but mask policies should be proactive rather than reactive, Au said.

“The goal of masking is prophylactic,” she said. “If you’re waiting for the point where the case numbers are high enough to warrant masking, you’re already behind the curve.”

Districts imposing mask mandates are also facing criticism from groups opposed to any mandatory COVID-19 restrictions.

Muscogee County Schools at the Alabama line updated its policy to require masks July 28 ahead of the new school year citing rising case numbers and CDC guidance.

That was the day after the CDC issued new guidance that even vaccinated people should wear masks indoors in areas with high infection rates, including nearly all of Georgia.

A group called Moms Against the Mandatory Masking of Our Children sent out an email calling on parents to keep their children at home or send them to school and let them face punishment for not masking.

“Do what you will, but we will not comply,” the email reads. “There is no one solution for all of us, but we do have options since our School District refuses to give us any.”

Vaccine hesitancy

In Georgia, 14.3% of people 18 and up are hesitant to receive a COVID-19 vaccine, compared with about 10.8% nationwide, according to U.S. Census data.

That hesitancy was on display at Tuesday’s meeting when two employees urged the commission not to make them receive vaccines. The county employs more than 1,700 people.

COVID-19 vaccines have gone through all stages of clinical trials and have been shown to be safe, according to the CDC. Nearly 165 million Americans have been fully vaccinated as of Monday, and serious side effects have been extremely rare. Vaccinated people can catch COVID-19 in rare cases, but they are much less likely to develop severe symptoms.

Marilyn Emerson said her department is already understaffed and she would leave if she were forced to be vaccinated.

“You can’t undo a vaccine. Is the county prepared to compensate employees when they’re requiring employees to take something that doesn’t have solid science and data to support that it’s not going to harm us in ten years, or it’s not going to change our current medical status? You don’t know what it’s going to do to a woman’s fertility. You don’t know what it’s going to do to a man’s fertility.”

Experts say there is no evidence that any vaccine, including for COVID-19, has any link with female or male fertility problems.

Pregnant or recently pregnant women are at higher risk for complications if they contract COVID-19. The CDC says pregnant women can be vaccinated and urges them to speak with their doctor if they have concerns.

Athens-Clarke County is set to begin its vaccine mandate by Sept. 1.

Masks down, cases up

The number of statewide cases continued its upward trajectory Wednesday, with a weekly moving average of 2,770 cases compared with 306 the month before. There have been 945,888 confirmed cases in Georgia, and 18,764 confirmed deaths along with 2,971 probable deaths.

Athens’ mandate makes sense given the local conditions, said Dr. Isaac Chun-Hai Fung, associate professor of epidemiology at the Jiann-Ping Hsu College of Public Health at Georgia Southern University. In most cases, mandates themselves are effective without having to expend much effort on enforcement.

“I hope that people will voluntarily adapt, because it’s one thing to have a mandate, but how enforceable it is is also important,” he said. “I think when there is a mandate, the majority of Americans voluntarily comply with the mandate without any need for police involvement or whatever.”

As the commission voted to institute a mask mandate, unmasked young people crowded the streets of Athens. Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder

When people left City Hall Tuesday night, they found themselves in the heart of downtown Athens, where heavy bass thumped from bars and clubs as hundreds of people, nearly all of them without masks, cavorted through the streets and lined up to dance and drink. A bouncer outside one of the clubs said the crowd was fairly typical for a Tuesday night.

The University of Georgia is preparing to start its new semester Aug. 18. The mandate will not apply to buildings on campus – as a state agency, the university is subject to the Georgia Board of Regents, which highly recommends masks, but does not require them.

Young people typically suffer only mild symptoms from COVID-19, but some develop serious complications, and health experts worry about unmasked students in schools and colleges spreading the illness to more vulnerable populations, especially since research suggests patients with the delta variant spread the more dangerous version of the disease more easily.

Encouraging young people to get their shots will be key to lowering the case numbers, said microbiologist Amber Schmidtke.

“My heart goes out to the faculty at UGA who are putting a lot of risk on the table just to do their job right now,” she said. “We’ll have to see what happens, especially with the young folks. The pandemic ends with them. By vaccinating them and stopping transmission among 18 to 29-year-olds, that’s how we end this thing.”

Gov. Brian Kemp has consistently called for Georgians to practice safety measures including being vaccinated, but he has balked at any calls to impose mandates for masks or vaccines, saying the state has no business imposing such measures.

That means Georgians will have to get serious about safety before anything gets better, Schmidtke said.

“I can’t believe we have to keep saying this, but this thing is real, and delta is a different virus almost than what we’ve dealt with last year,” she said. “It’s important for everyone to take this seriously and do the work of limiting transmission.”

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Ross Williams
Ross Williams

Before joining the Georgia Recorder, Ross Williams covered local and state government for the Marietta Daily Journal.Williams' reporting took him from City Hall to homeless camps, from the offices of business executives to the living rooms of grieving parents. His work earned recognition from the Georgia Associated Press Media Editors and the Georgia Press Association, including beat reporting, business writing and non-deadline reporting. A native of Cobb County, Williams holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Atlanta's Oglethorpe University and a master’s in journalism from Northwestern University.