Atlanta imposes mask mandate, possibly defies governor

Coronavirus has sickened tens of thousands and killed thousands more in Georgia. (Image: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

A mandatory masking order is in effect in the city of Atlanta, requiring everyone inside Georgia’s capital city to wear masks in public and in businesses open to the public amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The order, which took effect late Wednesday, pits Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms against Gov. Brian Kemp, who opposes issuing a statewide mask mandate amid a recent rise in positive COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in Georgia.

The governor has not signaled whether he may take legal steps to overturn Atlanta’s mask order, given his own executive orders on COVID-19 require local governments to adopt the state’s health and safety rules, which do not so far include any guidelines on mandatory masking.

The Atlanta order also limits public gatherings to 10 people or fewer in Atlanta, potentially impacting the ability for large protests against racial injustice and police brutality to continue as they have over the past several weeks.

It provides exceptions for those with medical conditions who may not be able to wear masks, as well as when people are eating, smoking, swimming in a pool or riding in a vehicle.

“We will continue to take active measures to help slow the spread of COVID-19 infections in Atlanta,” Bottoms said in a statement. “Public health experts overwhelmingly agree that wearing a face covering helps slow the spread of this sometimes deadly virus.”

With the masking order in place, Atlanta joins a handful of other Georgia cities including Savannah and Athens that have recently issued requirements for facial coverings in public.

National and local health experts strongly agree the widespread use of masks will be essential to curbing the virus’ spread without a vaccine or cure.

Kemp has also urged voluntary mask wearing in Georgia via a statewide awareness tour and by launching a marketing campaign for reopened businesses to adopt safe distancing, cleaning and masking practices.

“To keep our friends and neighbors safe from COVID-19, we have to do our part,” the governor said Thursday on Twitter. “Mask up, Georgia!”

Kemp has, however, stopped short of requiring Georgians to wear masks, noting on several occasions that people in the state should not need a mask mandate “to do the right thing.”

Many local elected leaders have called on the governor to go a step further with masking rules – or at least allow city and county officials to set their own measures.

“We should not be sending the message to local governments that they don’t have the right or the space to take those steps on their own,” said Georgia House Minority Leader Bob Trammell, D-Luthersville.

Other influential Georgia leaders have steered clear of the mask debate. House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, noted he ordered state House lawmakers to wear masks during the legislative session last month but has no such say over local affairs.

“Whether local municipalities are able to compel mask wearing under the governor’s executive order isn’t my decision to make,” Ralston said Thursday. “Frankly, all that matters now is keeping people healthy and getting our economy growing again.”

The governor’s office has not responded this week when asked if Kemp is considering legal options to overrule the order.

On Twitter, Kemp’s communications director, Candice Broce, leveled criticism at aspects of the Atlanta order, highlighting that “there’s no exception for exercise, but there’s an exception for smoking.”

More than 100,000 people in Georgia have tested positive for COVID-19 since the highly contagious respiratory virus swept the state starting in March. Around 3,000 Georgians have died.

Positive cases have edged up in Georgia in recent weeks.

In a troubling trend, hospital admissions began climbing again this month in Albany, which was one of the state’s worst COVID-19 hotspots earlier this year.

The Southwest Georgia city’s Phoebe Putney Health System noted Thursday that 37 patients have been admitted in the last eight days, approaching close to the total of 47 patients seen there throughout June.

“It is clear transmission of the virus is picking up throughout Georgia and much of the country,” said Scott Steiner, Phoebe Putney’s chief executive officer. “We are all anxious for our lives to return to normal, but to protect ourselves, our families and our communities, that normal must include wearing masks in public and limiting close contact with others.”

Atlanta mayor to order mask mandate, joining other Georgia cities

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms signaled Wednesday she will place Georgia’s capital city under a mandatory mask order amid the COVID-19 pandemic, joining Athens and Savannah on a list of Georgia cities where masking is now required.

The Atlanta order comes in the face of continued opposition by Gov. Brian Kemp to issuing a statewide mandatory masking order, even as officials and health experts urge people to wear masks in public.

The new mask requirement in Atlanta also comes after Bottoms announced she and several of her family members had tested positive for coronavirus earlier this week, though she has not experienced any symptoms.

Details about the order were not immediately available Wednesday. Bottoms said she would issue an order in an MSNBC interview Wednesday morning.

As of Wednesday afternoon, nearly 104,000 people in Georgia had tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel strain of coronavirus that sparked a global pandemic. It had killed 2,922 Georgians.

City officials in Savannah, Athens, and the suburban Atlanta city of East Point have also issued mask-wearing requirements in recent days, as health experts warn positive COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations have edged up in Georgia following the Memorial Day holiday in late May.

The decision by Bottoms puts Atlanta at odds with Kemp, whose own statewide executive orders on COVID-19 allow him to override any local mandates such as for masking.

Kemp’s office did not immediately respond when asked whether he may seek to overrule an Atlanta order.

Speaking on MSNBC, Bottoms said she had asked the governor to let Atlanta impose its own mask mandate but that “he refused.” She labeled state officials’ approach to loosening business and distancing restrictions in recent months as “very irresponsible.”

“The fact of the matter is that COVID-19 is wreaking havoc on our cities, specifically black and brown communities with higher death rates,” Bottoms said. “And we will never be able to reopen our schools and our economy if we don’t take some responsibility for what we can do as leaders to make sure that people aren’t exposed to this virus.”

The governor has held off on imposing a statewide mask requirement despite mounting pressure from many local officials and health experts to do so.

In remarks Tuesday to municipal and county government associations, Kemp called on local leaders to raise awareness over the importance of wearing masks and washing hands, rather than imposing any mandates.

“We don’t need a mandate to have Georgians do the right thing,” Kemp said. “But we do need to build strong, public support.”

The governor has opted instead to tour the state in a bid to urge mask wearing and launched a marketing campaign this week encouraging reopened businesses to adopt safe distancing, cleaning and masking practices.

Bottoms announced Monday she had tested positive for COVID-19, marking the most high-profile public official in Georgia to contract the virus. She said she did not know where she might have been exposed but criticized the slow eight-day turnaround time for her test results.

“The fact that we can’t quickly get results back so that other people are not unintentionally exposed is the reason we are continuing in this spiral with COVID-19,” Bottoms said.

She noted Atlanta city hall has been closed since March but that she had recently been in close proximity to the city’s police chief, fire chief and other staff.

The mayor’s announcement also comes as she grapples not only with the city’s response to coronavirus but also a spate of violence centered around a burned-down Wendy’s that has been a focal point for recent protests against police brutality and racial injustice.

The fatal shooting Saturday night of an eight-year-old girl, Secoriea Turner, near the Wendy’s restaurant sparked swift condemnation from Bottoms and other officials including the governor.

Kemp has placed Georgia under a state of emergency through Monday (July 13) in response to Turner’s death and vandalism at the state Department of Public Safety headquarters in Atlanta.

Atlanta authorities said Turner was shot and killed when a group of armed people opened fire on the car in which she was riding across the street from the Wendy’s, located south of downtown.

The Wendy’s was burned down amid protests shortly after the killing of Rayshard Brooks, 27, during an altercation with Atlanta police outside the restaurant in mid-June. Since then, the site has been frequented by armed persons who at times have barricaded the property, according to police.

Kemp launches campaign for COVID-19 safety awareness

One of the graphics available for businesses as part of the governor’s “Georgia Safety First” COVID-19 safety awareness campaign. (State of Georgia image)

Gov. Brian Kemp’s office has launched a marketing campaign for Georgia businesses to show they are keeping up good social distancing, sanitizing and masking practices amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The voluntary campaign comes as Kemp and state health officials continue urging Georgians to wear masks in public, though the governor has steered clear of issuing any mandatory mask-wearing order.

Kemp has faced mounting pressure from health experts and many local officials to take more mandatory measures on masks after steadily loosening restrictions on businesses and social gatherings since May.

He was scheduled Tuesday for conference calls with President Donald Trump and governors to discuss the coronavirus response, as well as with local government officials, business owners and faith-based leaders to talk about Georgia’s health guidelines.

“As we continue to fight COVID-19, we want to ensure Georgia businesses and the public are abiding by public health guidance in order to keep Georgia healthy and open for business,” Kemp said in a statement.

Per the “Georgia Safety Promise” campaign, businesses can request signs and graphics to post on their premises or social media. The idea is to show a business’ commitment to washing hands, wearing masks, sanitizing surfaces and having patrons and employees keep six feet apart.

The aim is to spread awareness of the importance of following health guidelines in Georgia amid a recent rise in positive COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations following Memorial Day weekend.

“The promise to practice social distancing, to wear a face covering in public and to wash your hands is a small commitment that will have a powerful, positive impact on the future of our state,” said Georgia Public Health Commissioner Dr. Kathleen Toomey.

The campaign’s purpose is also to inject more consumer confidence in businesses struggling to rebound from the economic fallout of the pandemic.

“Businesses can think of the [campaign] as a complimentary marketing asset that will help communicate your commitment to your patrons’ health and well-being,” said Karen Bremer, CEO of the Georgia Restaurant Association.

“I hope every business in Georgia takes advantage of this opportunity and, in turn, sees a growth in sales and overall customer confidence,” Bremer said.

Atlanta mayor tests positive for COVID-19

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms has contracted COVID-19.

Bottoms, 50, announced Monday evening she has tested positive for the virus but has not experienced any symptoms.

“COVID-19 has literally hit home,” the mayor said on Twitter. “I have had NO symptoms and have tested positive.”

Georgia is among several states to see an uptick in positive coronavirus cases and hospitalizations in recent weeks following the Memorial Day holiday in late May.

Roughly 97,000 people in Georgia had tested positive for the virus as of Monday afternoon. It had killed 2,878 Georgians.

In an interview on MSNBC Monday, Bottoms said she did not know where she might have contracted the virus. She and her family members have been diligent about washing hands and wearing masks, she said.

Bottoms said her positive COVID-19 results arrived after she and her family had tested negative about two weeks ago.

“It leaves me for a loss of words because I think it really speaks to how contagious this virus is,” Bottoms said. “We’ve taken all of the precautions that you can possibly take.”

Public health experts and elected officials including Gov. Brian Kemp have urged people over the past week to wear masks in public. So far, the governor has held off on ordering a statewide mask mandate.

The mayor’s announcement comes as she grapples not only with the city’s response to coronavirus but also a spate of violence centered around a burned-down Wendy’s that has been a focal point for recent protests against police brutality and racial injustice.

The fatal shooting Saturday night of an eight-year-old girl, Secoriea Turner, near the Wendy’s restaurant sparked swift condemnation from Bottoms and other officials.

Kemp has placed Georgia under a state of emergency through next Monday in response to Turner’s death and vandalism at the state Department of Public Safety headquarters in Atlanta.

Atlanta authorities said Turner was shot and killed when a group of armed people opened fire on the car in which she was riding across the street from the Wendy’s.

The restaurant was burned down amid protests shortly after Brooks’ killing. Since then, the site has been frequented by armed persons who at times have barricaded the property, according to police.

Kemp issues statewide emergency order amid Atlanta violence

Gov. Brian Kemp discusses the state’s response to protests over police brutality and racial injustice at the State Operations Center in Atlanta on June 2, 2020. (Gov. Kemp’s officials Facebook page)

Gov. Brian Kemp placed Georgia under a state of emergency Monday afternoon following a pair of fatal shootings near a burned-down Wendy’s in Atlanta that has been a focal point for recent protests against police brutality and racial injustice.

The emergency order came hours after Kemp sounded a warning that his administration “won’t hesitate to take action” in the wake of the shooting deaths and after protesters damaged the state Department of Public Safety headquarters in Atlanta around 1 a.m. Sunday, according to the Georgia State Patrol.

The order authorizes Georgia National Guard troops to help quell any unruly protests and for state and local law enforcement “to do all things necessary to maintain peace and good order.”

“This measure will allow troops to protect state property and dispatch state law enforcement officers to patrol our streets,” Kemp said in a news release Monday. “Enough with the tough talk. We must protect the lives and livelihoods of all Georgians.”

Kemp’s office added the governor could authorize as many as 1,000 National Guard members under the order. The state of emergency is set to run through next Monday (July 13).

Atlanta authorities said eight-year-old Secoriea Turner was shot and killed when a group of armed people opened fire on the car in which she was riding late Saturday night.

The car was attempting to enter a parking lot across the street from the Wendy’s restaurant that the armed group had blocked off south of downtown Atlanta, according to city police.

A 53-year-old man was killed in a triple shooting next to the Wendy’s Sunday night roughly 24 hours after Turner’s death, according to police.

Kemp called the shootings and property damage part of a “recent trend of lawlessness [that] is outrageous and unacceptable.”

“While we stand ready to assist local leaders in restoring peace and maintaining order, we won’t hesitate to take action without them,” Kemp wrote on Twitter Sunday night.

The Wendy’s has been the site of intense protests following the death of Rayshard Brooks, a 27-year-old man who was shot by an Atlanta police officer on June 12 during an altercation outside the restaurant.

The restaurant was burned down amid protests shortly after Brooks’ killing. Since then, the site has been frequented by armed persons who at times have barricaded the property, according to police.

The governor’s comments come amid weeks of protests locally and across the country following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis by a police officer who kneeled on his neck on May 25.

Last month, Kemp ordered 3,000 Georgia National Guard troops to mobilize for assisting local and state authorities with crowd control during protests in Atlanta and other Georgia cities.

On Sunday night, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms also decried the shootings and vandalism, labeling the killing of Turner as a “random wild, wild west shoot ‘em up” that tarnishes the aim of peaceful protesters seeking criminal justice reform.

“We’ve got to stop this,” Bottoms said at a news conference Sunday night. “We are doing each other more harm than any police officer on this force.”

Kemp’s state-of-emergency order levelled criticism at Atlanta officials, saying they had “failed to quell” recent acts of violence and property damage in the city.

His order also notes between 60 and 100 people “armed with rocks, spray paint and fireworks” vandalized the Public Safety headquarters early Sunday and tried to set it on fire.

“Criminals are now victimizing Georgians to inflict chaos, cause fear among residents and thwart law enforcement,” the order says. “This ongoing threat to public safety will not be tolerated.”

Other elected officials also lamented Turner’s death and condemned the presence of armed persons involved in protests at the Wendy’s.

Sen. Nikema Williams, who chairs the Democratic Party of Georgia, urged an end to the “scourge of gun violence” threatening children.

“We must keep guns out of the hands of bad actors and protect our communities,” said Williams, D-Atlanta.

And U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler, R-Ga., touted legislation she introduced last month to withhold federal highway safety funds from state and local governments that move to reduce law enforcement funding.

“The heartbreaking and senseless violence in Atlanta must stop,” said Loeffler.

COVID-19 lawsuit protections draw praise, concerns in Georgia

Coronavirus has sickened tens of thousands and killed thousands more in Georgia. (Image: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

A mix of relief, fear and uncertainty has cropped up for business leaders and worker advocates in Georgia eyeing new protections for companies and hospitals against coronavirus-related lawsuits.

Liability legislation passed the General Assembly last week to shield Georgia businesses and health-care facilities from lawsuits brought by people who contract coronavirus in all but the worst negligence or recklessness cases.

Gov. Brian Kemp has not yet decided whether to sign the liability protections into law. His office said Thursday the legislation is still under legal review.

If he signs the bill, business groups say the protection measures should lend confidence to a range of Georgia enterprises from mom-and-pop shops to sports stadiums that they will not face crippling litigation due to coronavirus.

But union representatives worry workers will be left in the lurch as thousands of front-line and low-wage employees in the state struggle to keep themselves safe from the virus either in the workplace or the courts.

“We rely on those people for our well-being and for our survival,” said Charlie Flemming, president of the AFL-CIO’s Georgia chapter. “If we’re not going to treat those front-line people with every safety precaution, I think that’s just a misplaced judgment.”

Senate Bill 359 would let Georgia businesses and hospitals waive liability for coronavirus-related claims so long as they post certain warning signs and do not willfully or grossly neglect their patrons or workers.

Those protections would take effect as soon as Kemp signs the bill and would cover anyone who contracts coronavirus until July 14, 2021.

The intent is to give local businesses and health-care workers assurances their actions likely won’t lead to lawsuits as they continue struggling amid the coronavirus pandemic, said state lawmakers supporting the bill.

The Georgia Chamber of Commerce backs the bill, noting the liability measures aim to reduce legal risks for businesses still rebounding from the economic slowdown spurred by the virus.

“The Georgia Chamber prioritizes the health and well-being of all Georgians as we support state leadership to safely reopen our economy,” said David Raynor, a spokesman. “COVID-19 threatens not only the health of Georgians but also their livelihood.”

A host of sanitizing and social distancing measures for restaurants, offices and other gathering spots also remain in place under orders by the governor.

Kemp has sought to spur the state’s economic recovery by relaxing closure mandates and certain social distancing requirements put in place since April, even as positive cases of coronavirus and hospitalizations have climbed in recent weeks.

As of Thursday afternoon, about 87,700 people in Georgia had contracted COVID-19. It had killed 2,849 Georgians.

Meanwhile, the liability protections face stern pushback from worker advocates like Flemming and the AFL-CIO, which has 220,000 members in Georgia from a spectrum of industries like food service, airports, building trades, nursing homes and poultry plants.

Arguing safety issues will likely hit low-income workers hardest, Flemming called the bill an example that “once again the state has put profits and corporations ahead of workers.”

Flemming also argued state workers’ compensation laws – which would not be disrupted under the bill – are already too weak for employees to address coronavirus-related problems.

Democratic lawmakers in the General Assembly also condemned the bill in debates over its passage in the final hours of the 2020 legislative session late last month, arguing more safety considerations should be made for workers.

They especially homed in on a decision by the bill writers to make “gross negligence” the minimum threshold for having a COVID-19 damage claim, which attorneys on both sides of the issue acknowledge is a high hurdle to meet – but not impossible.

Republican lawmakers in the state Senate also took issue with that standard, contending it would be too lax to fully protect businesses and hospitals from lawsuits.

Setting the bar at gross negligence marked a compromise between health-care professionals, business leaders and trial attorneys. Critically, it persuaded the Georgia Trial Lawyers Association to support the bill following last-minute negotiations in the session.

Brett Turnbull, a trial attorney with offices in Atlanta and Birmingham, Ala., agreed keeping gross negligence in the bill was key for giving workers some legal options despite his concerns generally with immunity-style COVID-19 liability measures.

“The gross negligence standard is definitely the sweet spot,” Turnbull said. “It can create issues, but I think how it’s written is probably the best way it can be written. Otherwise, every business that opened would be in a predicament.”

Even so, Turnbull said liability protections that include gross negligence could still dissuade workers with legitimate cases from filing claims. Near-immunity from lawsuits might also encourage some businesses to avoid taking all possible steps to keep their premises clean and safe, he said.

“The longer that this pandemic continues to rage in our country, and the more people who are getting sick and dying, balancing that with businesses that recognize they would suffer economic ruin creates a very, very flammable situation,” Turnbull said. “It’s hard to say what people are going to do.”