For The Record

Kemp asks local officials to promote mask wearing, but not order it

By: - July 7, 2020 5:58 pm

Gov. Brian Kemp Tuesday urged local officials to use persuasion to get constituents to wear masks in public rather than ordering them to cover their faces. He wore a mask on the floor of the Georgia House of Representatives at the end of the 2020 legislative session. Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder

This story was updated at 8 a.m. Wednesday 

Gov. Brian Kemp made a direct appeal to local officials in a Tuesday phone call to use their influence – rather than a mandate – to sway people to wear face masks as the number of COVID-19 cases in Georgia continues to surge.

“I realize that many on this call have different opinions on the appropriate response to this pandemic – and that’s fine,” Kemp said, according to a written copy of his remarks provided by the governor’s office during a call with members of the Georgia Municipal Association and the Association County Commissioners of Georgia.

“But we all agree that masks are good and can help stop the spread. We all know that social distancing makes it hard for the virus to travel. We agree that regular handwashing can limit exposure,” he said. “So instead of mandates, I’m asking you to join me in raising awareness.”

Kemp spent two days last week crisscrossing the state pushing a “Wear a Mask” campaign, which he used to drum up support for a practice recommended by public health experts and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

His request to local officials Tuesday came hours before Athens officials unanimously voted to require facial coverings. East Point in Fulton County and Savannah had already backed mask mandates. The University System of Georgia also announced Monday that it will require face masks inside buildings like lecture rooms.

Tuesday also marked a troubling milestone for Georgia: There are now more than 100,000 positive COVID-19 cases in the state. That’s up more than 19,000 cases from a week ago.

The governor has resisted calls to mandate wearing face masks or to return to the shutdown orders he issued back in the spring to help curb the coronavirus. He said Tuesday that long-term care facilities, churches, jails and daycare centers were among those struggling to slow the viral spread within their walls.

He has issued an executive order that “strongly encourages” face masks. But he has primarily leaned on public appeals to try to persuade people to wear them willingly, although he did also float the idea that this fall’s college football season could be jeopardy.

“We don’t need a mandate to have Georgians do the right thing, but we do need to build strong, public support,” Kemp said in the call. “Let’s work together – with a unified voice – to remind Georgians what’s effective and important in this fight against COVID-19.”

Kemp also urged local officials to reassess whether businesses and groups are following his guidelines and to crack down on “bad actors.”

“Again, I know some want us to roll back the reopening and others want us to keep moving forward,” he said. “But here’s the question: Are folks following the current Executive Order? If not, let’s get to work.”

In the Tuesday call, the governor also defended his decision to deploy the National Guard to Atlanta after weekend violence near the site of Rayshard Brooks’ death claimed the life of an 8-year-old girl. He sent soldiers to watch over state property in the city without the support of Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms.

“I refuse to sit back and do nothing as law enforcement is trashed and criminals are appeased,” he said, adding that the guardsmen will be at governor’s mansion and other state properties so “we can put more law enforcement officers on the street.”

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Jill Nolin
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.