72ºF

Savannah mayor to require masks in businesses or face fines

File photo.
File photo. (Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

SAVANNAH, Ga. – The mayor of Savannah said Tuesday he’s ordering people to wear masks inside retail shops, grocery stores and other public places — and those who refuse could face $500 fines.

“Frankly and honestly, I do not believe that we have any other choice,” Mayor Van Johnson told a news conference, warning that “COVID-19 cases are spiking in our community.”

A city of 145,000 that depends on tourism, Savannah appears to be the first city in Georgia to make wearing masks mandatory.

Some Georgia cities have moved to require face coverings inside government buildings, said Larry Hanson, executive director of the Georgia Municipal Association. But Savannah is the first he’s aware of to extend that requirement to public businesses, he said.

“That will probably become a test to setting the boundaries of local control,” Hanson said.

He was referring to Gov. Brian Kemp’s executive orders that have largely prohibited local governments from setting coronavirus restrictions that go beyond those imposed by the state. Georgia has been among the most aggressive U.S. states to allow restaurants, hair salons, bars and other businesses to reopen from shutdowns aimed at slowing the spread of the virus.

The mayor said he sent Kemp a letter to inform the governor of his mask mandate. Kemp’s office did not immediately respond to an email message seeking comment Tuesday.

Kemp, a Republican, has refrained from ordering people to wear face coverings. However, he plans a tour of cities across Georgia before the Fourth of July weekend to urge residents to wear masks.

Confirmed infections and hospitalizations due to COVID-19 have been on the rise in Georgia.

Though not the worst in the state, Savannah and surrounding Chatham County have seen infections and deaths rise dramatically in the past two months. As of Monday, the county reported 1,140 coronavirus cases and 37 deaths — more than five times the number of cases and deaths that the county had when Georgia began reopening April 24.

Johnson said people with physical or medical reasons for not wearing masks would be exempt from his order, which also would not apply to people eating or drinking. Violators will face fines of up to $500.

“Before we cite you, we will offer you a face covering,” the mayor said. “So again, this is not to be punitive.”

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. But for others, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, the virus can cause more severe illness and even death.