As It Happens

Mayors push back after Georgia governor files lawsuit over Atlanta mask mandate

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp sued Atlanta on Thursday to block it from enforcing a mask mandate and other rules related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, several other Georgia mayors, including Savannah's Van Johnson, are speaking out against the move.

Savannah Mayor Van Johnson among ranks of local leaders who reject governor's approach to masks

A protester holds up a sign asking for a mask mandate in schools during a rally in Watkinsville, Ga., on Wednesday. Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp issued an executive order preventing local authorities from making masks mandatory. (Joshua L. Jones/Athens Banner-Herald/The Associated Press)
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Georgia's governor is using a heavy hand to enforce his preferred light touch on face masks.

Republican Gov. Brian Kemp sued the city of Atlanta on Thursday to block it from enforcing a mask mandate and other rules related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The battle over masks in a state with rapidly rising cases of COVID-19 erupted into a public fight as Atlanta and more than a dozen other cities and counties defied Kemp by issuing or maintaining local orders requiring masks be worn in public spaces.

The dispute ratcheted up several notches this week. On Wednesday, Kemp issued an executive order that explicitly voided local mask requirements, including the one issued by Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms.

"I know that many well-intentioned and well-informed Georgians want a mask mandate. 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," Kemp said.

He said the lawsuit was filed "on behalf of business owners, their employees and hardworking Georgians throughout the region who continue to struggle to make ends meet."

"Mayor Bottoms's mask mandate cannot be enforced, but her decision to shutter businesses and undermine economic growth is devastating," Kemp said.

Van Johnson, mayor of Savannah, Ga., is calling on Kemp to work more co-operatively with local leaders after a contentious week that saw Kemp bring a lawsuit against the city of Atlanta for imposing a mask order. (Submitted by the office of Van Johnson)

Savannah Mayor Van Johnson is among the Georgia mayors speaking out against the governor's approach to local mask policy and the lawsuit filed against Atlanta.

He spoke to As It Happens guest host Nil Köksal about the issue. Here is part of their conversation.

Gov. Brian Kemp said Georgians don't need a mask mandate to do the right thing. What do you say to him?

I think that's absolutely irrational. If that was the case, we don't need traffic lights because people will stop at intersections.… The fact of the matter is, we are a nation of laws.… And so, therefore, in this case, some people have to be told the right thing to do. And in Savannah, that is what we've done based on the science. 

On Wednesday, Gov. Kemp signed an executive order banning cities including yours, from implementing and enforcing mandates on masks. How did you react when you first learned about that order?

Oh, first of all, it was late in the evening, probably about 10 p.m. after the president of the United States left Atlanta. I was surprised. I was blindsided. I was flabbergasted. I was upset because it was totally unexpected. And as far as we're concerned, we don't believe the governor has the authority to be able to mandate this in this manner. We believe he's overstepped and therefore, Savannah's emergency declaration still stands. 

How do you explain the political divide that we're seeing, particularly in your country, about whether or not people should be forced to wear masks?

Well, that's the point. It's a political divide. And this should not be about politics. We have said from the very beginning that we were going to follow the science. And so, therefore, you follow that the health professionals from the federal government to the state government to local governments. 

Certainly, Dr. [Anthony] Fauci, the CDC, they have been as consistent as they can be, as we've learned more about COVID-19. And so therefore, we just follow that advice. No, what's happened is you had people putting in political feelings and so, it's morphed into something that we don't recognize.

The governor says mandates like the one that you have in place since July 1, we should mention, are unenforceable. Is he right?

Of course not. We have a police department that we own, that works at our pleasure, that will enforce the ordinances and mandates that we set forth, so we can and we will enforce it. So I'm not sure what the governor is talking about. 

Kemp has said the people of Georgia don't need a mask mandate 'to do the right thing.' (Mike Stewart/Associated Press)

What has it been like as officers and others try to make sure people are wearing masks when they go out? 

Well, I've actually been out on the streets myself, and our law enforcement officers have given out nearly 1,500 masks. Our goal here is compliance. We don't want to be punitive. And so, therefore, if we encounter somebody not wearing a mask, we give them one because we don't want to write the ticket. We will warn businesses, because we don't want to cite them. And so, therefore, people have been generally very receptive. They understand it. They get it. They know what we're trying to do. And they've worked with us.

We've seen, all of us have seen, those viral videos in Canada, but in the U.S. as well of people pushing store managers down, refusing to wear a mask. So have you had pushback from people who aren't onboard? 

We've had individuals who don't believe that we should institute those types of things. And again, as we tell our stores and our businesses, you know, we're not engaging them. If they don't want to comply, they don't have to be served. That's the right of the business. That's the right of our community. We don't have to serve people who don't want to comply. Just like we have in many stores across the country, "no shirt, no shoes, no service." Well, we've just amended that to be "no shirt, no shoes, no mask, no service."

But does what the governor is saying make your job harder than when you and your officers are on the streets as you make that pitch for people in Savannah to wear a mask?

Absolutely. Matter of fact, less than an hour ago, ran into somebody, and they were like, "Well, the governor says we don't have to do it now." I said, 'Well, I'm the mayor and I say you do.' And so we make that very, very clear.

You know, we've talked about masks, but we haven't talked about the bigger picture in Georgia about the situation with COVID-19. How worried are you? 

I'm very worried. I mean, our hospitalizations are up 39 per cent. We are right next to Florida, which is the nation's hot spot. And all way around us, we are facing people moving to and fro, many asymptomatic.… We have not plateaued in any sense of the way. We're still going up. And in Atlanta, our sister city to the northwest, Mayor Bottoms has had to even phase back some of their reopening. We actually had a stay-at-home order months ago when the situation was not as dire as it is now. 

Mayor Johnson, if you had the opportunity to sit down with Gov. Brian Kemp or have a phone call or Zoom chat, perhaps, what would you want to say to him?

Governor, at the end of the day, I believe and I hope that we want the same thing. We want Georgians, we want Savannahians, to be safe. We have to take politics out of this. We have to take personalities out of this. Let us do what is right. Let us do what is recommended by science. Let us do the things we can do together to make sure that our state, our beloved state, is doing the best that we can. We don't have time for infighting.… We have to do this together.  


Written by Brandie Weikle with files from The Associated Press. Interview produced by Morgan Passi. Q&A edited for length and clarity.

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