Georgia governor allows local mask mandates, with limits

FILE-In this Friday, July 17, 2020 file photo, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp speaks during a coronavirus briefing at the Capitol, in Atlanta. Kemp on Thursday, Aug. 13, said hes dropping a lawsuit against the city of Atlanta in a dispute over the citys requirement to wear masks in public and other restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic. (AP Photo/John Bazemore, File) (John Bazemore, Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

ATLANTA – Georgia’s governor, who has opposed local mask mandates and even sued over one in Atlanta, has signed a new executive order that allows local governments to enact mask requirements to help fight the coronavirus pandemic.

As with previous orders, the one issued Saturday says residents and visitors of the state are “strongly encouraged” to wear face coverings when they are outside of their homes, except when eating, drinking or exercising outside. But unlike previous orders, this one allows local governments in counties that have reached a “threshold requirement” to require the wearing of masks on government-owned property.

A county meets that threshold requirement if it has had 100 or more confirmed cases of COVID-19 per 100,000 people over the previous 14 days. Only two of Georgia’s 159 counties were below that threshold, according to data from the state Department of Public Health.

Local mask mandates cannot result in an fines, fees or penalties against private businesses or organizations, and penalties against individuals for non-compliance cannot included a fine greater than $50 and cannot include prison time, the order says. If people are not in compliance, local authorities must warn them “about the health risks posed by not wearing a face mask or face covering” prior to issuing a citation.

Local mask requirements can’t be enforced on residential property and can only be enforced on private property, including businesses, if the owner or occupant consents to enforcement, the order says.

“This order also protects Georgia businesses from government overreach by restricting the application and enforcement of local masking requirements to public property,” Gov. Brian Kemp said in a news release accompanying the order, which is in effect through Aug. 31. “While I support local control, it must be properly balanced with property rights and personal freedoms.”

Additionally, the order extends shelter-in-place requirements for people who meet certain criteria that result in “higher risk of severe illness,” including people in nursing homes or long-term care facilities, people with certain chronic health conditions and those with compromised immune systems or other underlying health conditions that make them more susceptible to the coronavirus.

It also continues to ban gatherings larger than 50 people if people are closer than 6 feet (2 meters) apart and imposes specific operating guidelines on bars, restaurants and other businesses.

Kemp, a Republican, last month sued Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, a Democrat, and the Atlanta City Council after Bottoms made statements that the governor said some interpreted as orders for restaurants to close and ordered masks. Kemp dropped the lawsuit Thursday.

Atlanta was one of a number of cities that issued orders requiring masks to be worn, despite Kemp’s arguments that local governments can’t impose measures that are more or less restrictive than those in his statewide executive orders.