ATLANTA – Georgia’s Republican governor issued an executive order Thursday that bans cities from requiring businesses to enforce local restrictions aimed at curbing the coronavirus pandemic, but what impact, if any, the measure would have on new mask requirements in Atlanta, Savannah and other cities was not clear.
At a news conference announcing the order, Gov. Brian Kemp said some people in the state want to go back into ”lockdown mode” and close businesses. He said his order will prevent local governments from forcing businesses to be the city’s ”mask police, the vaccine police.”
It came amid an explosion of new virus cases around the state that is straining hospitals.
“The fact is that small businesses across our state should not be punished by local governments just because they are trying to make a living, pay their employees and save their livelihoods,” Kemp said.
He said he was concerned about measures in Atlanta and Savannah -- two cities controlled by Democrats -- but he did not name any specific regulation or proposal.
Both cities have mask requirements, but it was not immediately clear that either city’s mask orders would be affected by the governor’s order. Savannah’s mask requirement applies to city buildings, hospitals, schools and a few other places, but not businesses.
Kemp said Thursday his order pertained to the private sector, and local governments had the right to do something on their properties.
Atlanta requires masks at businesses, but says the requirement will be enforced against individual customers, not the businesses themselves.
Savannah Mayor Van Johnson said his order remains in place, and the city’s “elected servants” will take additional action if needed.
“It is disappointing, but not surprising, that amid historic COVID-19 infections and abysmal vaccination rates, Governor Brian Kemp would again attempt to proactively pre-empt local governments like Savannah from protecting themselves by following the science,” he said in a statement.
Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’ office said Bottoms has “followed the science and data from the onset of this pandemic.”
“Masks save lives, and it is absurd we must continuously defend such a simple, straightforward fact,” a statement from the office said.
Bottoms tweeted a local news article about Kemp’s order and wrote above it, ”The gift that keeps on giving...”
In July 2020, Kemp sued Atlanta after it required masks in public despite orders from his administration that made them optional. He argued that local governments can’t impose measures that are more or less restrictive than those in his statewide executive orders, but he later dropped the suit.
At least two other cities in the state -- Decatur and Athens -- are under mask requirements, but both allow businesses to opt out.
The state’s latest COVID surge is fueled by the delta variant of the virus among people who are unvaccinated.
Health care providers at some of Georgia’s largest hospital systems warned Thursday about the increasing toll of the latest surge on younger patients, hospital staffs and healthcare capacity as they implored people to get vaccinated, wear masks and avoid large gatherings.
“The unfortunate thing is we don’t have the luxury of saying, `We’re full, and we’re closed,’” said Robert Jansen, chief medical officer at Atlanta’s Grady Health System. “We’re not a hotel, so people will continue to come and our staff will continue to cope and we’ll continue to find places to take care of these patients, but it is going to be difficult and it’s not going to be easy and it won’t make people happy.”
Jansen said the hospital’s emergency room is facing a “tsunami” of infected patients, forcing staff to divert ambulances to other hospitals for quicker care. Hospitals are mostly seeing people who are unvaccinated.
Jansen spoke at a news conference with doctors and a nurse from five other hospital systems: Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, Emory Healthcare, Piedmont Healthcare, Northeast Georgia Health System and Wellstar Health System.
Statewide, 89% of hospital ICU beds were in use Thursday, and nearly 4,850 people were hospitalized with COVID-19, according to state data. At just 42%, the state’s vaccination rate continues to stay well below the national average.
Children’s Healthcare is seeing more young children and teenagers infected this time around, said Chief Medical Officer James Fortenberry. He urged students, staff and visitors at schools to follow guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics to wear masks, which remain optional in many districts.
“We owe it to our kids to do everything that we can to protect them,” he said.
Parents at Cobb County schools -- the state’s second-largest district -- planned to hold another rally later Thursday to push the district to require masks. Dozens of Cobb County residents rallied last week for a mask mandate. They were met by roughly two dozen protesters who want masks to remain optional in the district.