Georgia gov sues to end cities' defiance on mask rules

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp has his mask adjusted by first lady Marty while waiting for President Donald Trump to arrive for his Georgia visit to talk about an infrastructure overhaul at the UPS Hapeville hub at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport on Wednesday July 15, 2020 in Atlanta.

Gov. Brian Kemp is suing Atlanta to block the city’s enforcement of a mask mandate and resumed stay-at-home guidelines amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, according to court documents filed Thursday.

The lawsuit, filed by Kemp and Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr, seek to have a Fulton County Superior Court judge declare unlawful a citywide masking requirement imposed by Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms last week.

It marks an intense ratcheting up of the dispute between Kemp, who has insisted on leaving masks as recommended but voluntary measures, and several Georgia mayors like Bottoms, who want local control over mandatory measures to help curb the virus’ spread.

The governor's office has frequently stressed his executive orders – which make mask-wearing "strongly encouraged" but not required – override any city or county actions that go beyond the state's COVID-19 rules.

Along with blocking the city’s mask orders, Kemp and Carr’s lawsuit asks the judge to prohibit Bottoms and the Atlanta City Council from approving any local orders that might be considered more restrictive than the governor’s.

That would include resuming limits on public gatherings to 10 persons and recent steps taken to reimpose a shelter-at-home order for city residents, according to the suit.

Additionally, the suit seeks to bar Bottoms from “issuing press releases, or making statements to the press, that she has the authority to impose more or less restrictive measures than are ordered” by the governor.

Bottoms, who tested positive for COVID-19 last week, cast the governor’s priorities as misplaced in light of the impacts of the virus, which has sickened hundreds of thousands of people in Georgia and killed thousands more.

“A better use of taxpayer money would be to expand testing and contact tracing," Bottoms said Thursday. "If being sued by the State is what it takes to save lives in Atlanta, then we will see them in court."

Kemp lashed out at Bottoms in a statement sent along with the suit, accusing the mayor of “reckless actions” and vowing to “put people over pandemic politics.”

“This lawsuit is on behalf of the Atlanta business owners and their hardworking employees who are struggling to survive during these difficult times,” Kemp said. “These men and women are doing their very best to put food on the table for their families while local elected officials shutter businesses and undermine economic growth.”

Kemp is scheduled to hold a news conference on COVID-19 early Friday morning.

Bottoms and other local officials from Savannah, Augusta, Athens and elsewhere have pleaded with the governor in recent weeks to allow them to enforce mask mandates in their communities if he will not impose one for the state.

Many public health experts have also urged Georgians to wear masks in public as positive COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations continue increasing in the weeks following Memorial Day weekend in late May.

After weeks of testy back-and-forth, the battle between Kemp and Bottoms kicked up a notch Wednesday when the governor issued new orders explicitly preventing local governments from imposing mandates for masks, face shields and other kinds of virus-protecting gear.

Bottoms and Savannah Mayor Van Johnson rejected the move. Johnson, who was first to impose a citywide mask mandate on July 1, wrote on Twitter late Wednesday night that “Governor Kemp does not give a damn about us.”

“In Savannah, we will continue to keep the faith and follow the science,” Johnson said. “Masks will continue to be available!”

As of Thursday afternoon, more than 131,000 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 3,104 Georgians.

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