For The Record

Kemp predicts legal win over Atlanta’s COVID-19 restrictions

By: - July 17, 2020 6:22 pm

Gov. Brian Kemp said at a Friday press conference the main cause for the recent spike in COVID-19 infections in Georgia is large gatherings like this June 16 protest where thousands marched to the state Capitol to protest high-profile killings of Black people. Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder

Gov. Brian Kemp Friday said he is confident the state will win a legal battle with Atlanta over the city’s COVID-19 restrictions, which he says are not needed because Georgians can be trusted to take safety precautions on their own.

“I know that many well-intentioned and well-informed Georgians want to mandate masks,” Kemp said during a media briefing held in the state Capitol. “And while we all agree that wearing a mask is effective, I’m confident that Georgians don’t need a mandate to do the right thing.”

The Kemp administration filed suit Thursday against Atlanta officials Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and members of the Atlanta City Council to ask a judge to stop the city from forcing restaurants to close and keep residents home except for essential trips.

The suit in Fulton Superior Court was in part prompted by the city’s directive this month that people wear masks in public, which the lawsuit says is precluded by the governor’s order that explicitly bans local governments from requiring masks. 

Many local officials across the state are watching the lawsuit closely, especially in the dozen or so cities where new requirements call for masks to be worn in public. 

Kemp’s most recent order on June 29 strongly encourages mask wearing and bans cities from requiring them.

Requiring masks places a burden on law enforcement agencies that lack the staffing to enforce it, Kemp said. He said it’s not fair to restaurant and store workers either.

“Businesses don’t have time for that,” Kemp said. “They’re barely hanging on now and can’t be some city’s police force.”

During a Friday CNN interview, Bottoms railed against Kemp for spending resources on fighting local mask ordinances in court. She also said it isn’t true the restaurant restrictions and stay-home decision she issued last week is causing enough confusion for some business owners to shut down.

Bottoms said the city relied on COVID-19 public health data and an advisory panel to decide on the rollback.

“For him to say that we are closing businesses in the city of Atlanta and costing people money is a blatant lie,” Bottoms said. “These are voluntary recommendations.”

Coronavirus cases and hospitalizations have soared in recent weeks. Georgia is among a dozen or so states with high enough positive test rates that a White House Coronavirus Task Force document recommends should take stronger actions to curb its spread. 

Kemp blamed the recent COVID-19 spike on demonstrations against police brutality and social injustice that played out across the state in May and June.

“Because of the demonstrators that sent a message to people that, ‘Hey, it’s all right to get out again, and we can let our guard down,'” he said. 

The demonstrations sometimes reached the the state Capitol after legislators returned for their final two weeks of the session in late June after a three-month suspension to contain the spread of COVID-19.

Other cities react to Atlanta lawsuit

Georgia Municipal Association’s incoming president Vince Williams is also the mayor of Fulton County’s Union City, where local officials now require people to wear masks in public.

“I’ll just get in line and wait for the lawsuit,” Williams said in a call with reporters Friday. “But certainly, this is about saving lives. This is not about politics or propping anything up or any position. This is not about party. This is not about race. This is about human lives.” 

The COVID-19 orders are lasting much longer than when a natural disaster like a hurricane causes a public emergency, said Rusi Patel, GMA’s general counsel. 

He said that while city officials he’s spoken with are not so much concerned about their city getting sued, they do have a vested interest in the legal result in Atlanta’s case.

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Stanley Dunlap
Stanley Dunlap

Stanley Dunlap has covered government and politics for news outlets in Georgia and Tennessee for the past decade. The Georgia Associated Press Managing Editors named Stanley a finalist for best deadline reporting. The Tennessee Press Association honored him for his reporting on the disappearance of Holly Bobo.