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Kemp to let local governments require face masks if conditions are met
07062020 KEMP
Gov. Brian Kemp discusses the state’s response to protests over police brutality and racial injustice at the State Operations Center in Atlanta on June 2, 2020. (Gov. Kemp’s officials Facebook page via Capitol Beat News Service)

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ATLANTA — Gov. Brian Kemp's administration says numbers show the state is making progress in its fight against COVID-19, despite a leaked federal report urging the state to take stronger steps, a per capita infection rate that is third-worst in the country over the past two weeks and soaring death totals after weeks of high illness levels.

Kemp spokesperson Candice Broce said Friday that Kemp will sign an executive order Saturday that will give cities and counties the power to require masks on government property under certain conditions but not on private property.

The report from President Donald Trump's coronavirus task force was obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. It advises Georgia to impose a statewide mask mandate; close bars, nightclubs and gyms in some counties; reduce capacity for in-restaurant dining; and limit social gatherings to 10 people instead of the state's current 50-person cap.

Spokesperson Cody Hall said the Republican governor is relying on data and advice from Public Health Commissioner Kathleen Toomey.

"As the governor has said many times before, this fight is about protecting the lives – and livelihoods – of all Georgians,” Hall said in a statement.

Broce said local governments could order face coverings on public property “if they meet specific health-related metrics," but said the order would contain exceptions and limit penalties. It's not exactly clear what the order will say, and previous orders have contained unanticipated surprises.

Broce said Kemp's new order would not let cities require masks on private property and that if owners do impose a face-covering requirement, they can decide whether police will help enforcement. Kemp's current position has been that cities and counties don't have the power to order masks on their own, although a number have done so. 

Kemp sued Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and the Atlanta City Council after Bottoms made statements that some interpreted as orders for restaurants to close and ordered masks. The question of whether local governments would impose mask requirements on businesses and send in police to force compliance led to a collapse in settlement talks between the state and Atlanta officials, Broce said.

“This order will contain very strong protections for business owners and private property,” Broce wrote in an email.

Cities have said they believe they do have the power to enforce local mask orders, said Rusi Patel, a lawyer for the Georgia Municipal Association. 

“GMA believes in local control and believes Georgia laws provide a large degree of local control, even in times of emergency. We filed a brief in the litigation supporting this concept a few weeks ago,” Patel wrote in an email. “However, the question of legality is one for the courts at the end of the day.”

Georgia's total number of confirmed coronavirus infections rose above 230,000 Friday, although the seven-day rolling average of daily new cases in Georgia has fallen 7% in the past two weeks, according to figures kept by The Associated Press. The nationwide new confirmed case average has fallen 20% in that time, although there have been questions about decreased testing.

Georgia’s rate of positive tests has also fallen during the past two weeks, averaging 10.9% on Thursday.

Georgia's seven-day average of newly reported cases has been above 3,000 since July 11, a level that has filtered through to high numbers of hospitalizations and deaths. Hospitalizations have been falling for about two weeks, but deaths from the summer spike are still being reported. More than 4,500 people have died from COVID-19 so far in Georgia, with the 7-day death average reaching an all-time high of 73 per day on Thursday before falling Friday. 

Among those deaths are longtime Augusta Utilities Director Tom Wiedmeier, who died Wednesday after contracting COVID-19 in July. 

The DeKalb County school district announced Friday that it was delaying athletics, marching bands and cheerleading until the end of September, although the groups will continue to train. Fulton County announced Thursday it was delaying athletic competition until Sept. 14. At least four other school districts have postponed or canceled some athletics. High school football teams elsewhere in the state are supposed to start playing on Sept. 4.

The Savannah-Chatham County school district said Friday that a football player at Beach High in Savannah tested positive for COVID-19 and the whole team and coaches are in quarantine.