To mask, or not to mask: Georgia’s ongoing legal battle

Mayor Van Johnson signing his executive order requiring facemasks to be worn in public, June 30.


    Savannah Mayor Van Johnson has made national headlines in his fight against the executive orders of Gov. Brian Kemp (R-GA). The mayor’s recent mandate requiring everyone in Savannah to wear a facemask (or else face a $500 fine) is technically illegal under Gov. Kemp’s executive order, which does not allow city governments to create stricter ordinances. The governor is currently disputing several other cities, including a lawsuit against Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms. 

Mayor Johnson recently went on NPR to explain his displeasure with the governor’s response, saying “Right to the west of us, the state of Alabama now mandates masks. In South Carolina and in Florida, they leave it up to the municipalities to decide whether to mandate masks. And even today, the White House, when asked about a nationwide mask order — the White House said that it’s leaving that decision up to the localities. … we know from the science — from the CDC, which is located in Atlanta — that wearing masks is a part of this three-pronged approach to be able to slow down the spread of this virus.” 

When asked about enforcement, Mayor Johnson claims that his mandate is less about punishing offenders and more about fostering compliance, saying that “before we would write a ticket for anyone, we would offer them a mask. And so our visitors, our citizens gratefully took a mask. And therefore, no ticket was required.” “The goal of this,” he said, “is to have people wear a mask. And again, we have over 15 million visitors come to our beautiful city every year. Some know. Some don’t know. And again, our role is to make sure we educate and make sure we provide a mask so they are in compliance.” 


Gov. Brian Kemp (R-GA). 

The office of Gov. Kemp, according to NPR, asserts that Mayor Johnson has not been enforcing his executive order, specifically the ban on gatherings of 50 people or more. Mayor Johnson responded that the governor’s mandate was unfunded and therefore difficult to enforce. Gov. Kemp’s executive order extends the Public Health State of Emergency through August 11th, as per this June 29th press release: “While we continue to see a decreasing case fatality rate, expanded testing, and adequate hospital surge capacity, in recent days, Georgia has seen an increase in new cases reported and current hospitalizations. Given these trends, I am extending previous COVID-19 safety requirements and guidelines that were due to expire on June 30 at 11:59 PM. 

“Executive Order continues to require social distancing, bans gatherings of more than fifty people unless there is six feet between each person, outlines mandatory criteria for businesses, and requires sheltering in place for those living in long-term care facilities and the medically fragile. The order also outlines that the State Board of Education must provide ‘rules, regulations, and guidance for the operation of public elementary and secondary schools for local boards of education.’”

In addition to fighting Mayor Johnson, Gov. Kemp’s has also begun a legal battle against Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, who reverted her city back to “Phase 1” status. Gov. Kemp issued a statement calling her actions “non-binding and unenforceable,” declaring that “Once again, if the Mayor actually wants to flatten the curve in Atlanta, she should start enforcing state restrictions, which she has failed to do.” Gov. Kemp asked the courts to issue an injunction forbidding Mayor Bottoms from speaking to the press; the mayor tweeted the court document, which reads in section (e) that Gov. Kemp wants to “restrain Mayor Bottoms from issuing press releases, or making statements to the press.”  

According to Fox 5 Atlanta, Gov. Kemp is one of the few Southern governors to restrict the actions of local governments. “Republican governors in Tennessee, South Carolina and Florida have resisted statewide mandates but allow local jurisdictions to implement them. Republican governors in Alabama, Arkansas and Texas and Democrats in Kentucky, Louisiana and North Carolina have issued statewide mask requirements.” Though Gov. Kemp has encouraged everyone to wear a mask, his orders do not require it. 


Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-NY)


Now, Mayor Johnson is finding support from outside of Georgia. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo visited Mayor Johnson today in Savannah,  — bringing “1,000 pieces of PPE equipment and his knowledge on dealing with the virus,” according to Savannah Now. “I think the mayor’s done an extraordinary job,” Gov. Cuomo said, blaming the Federal government for not instituting a nationwide mask policy. “Somehow the mask has become a political statement,” he said. “Government incompetence is what we’ve seen from the Federal government. … I think this has gone on much longer than it should have because of our politics.”