Coronavirus Updates: Savannah Mayor To Require Masks In Public Places

Envy Nail Bar prepared to reopen in April in Savannah, Georgia. The mayor of Savannah said Tuesday he's ordering people to wear masks inside retail shops, grocery stores and other public places or face fines.
Envy Nail Bar prepared to reopen in April in Savannah, Georgia. The mayor of Savannah said Tuesday he's ordering people to wear masks inside retail shops, grocery stores and other public places or face fines.
Credit Russ Bynum / Associated Press
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Updated Tuesday at 3:45 p.m.

The mayor of Savannah said Tuesday he’s ordering people to wear masks inside retail shops, grocery stores and other public places — and those who refuse could face $500 fines.

“Frankly and honestly, I do not believe that we have any other choice,” Mayor Van Johnson told a news conference, warning that “COVID-19 cases are spiking in our community.”

A city of 145,000 that depends on tourism, Savannah appears to be the first city in Georgia to make wearing masks mandatory.

Some Georgia cities have moved to require face coverings inside government buildings, said Larry Hanson, executive director of the Georgia Municipal Association. But Savannah is the first he’s aware of to extend that requirement to public businesses, he said.

“That will probably become a test to setting the boundaries of local control,” Hanson said.

He was referring to Gov. Brian Kemp’s executive orders that have largely prohibited local governments from setting coronavirus restrictions that go beyond those imposed by the state. Georgia has been among the most aggressive U.S. states to allow restaurants, hair salons, bars and other businesses to reopen from shutdowns aimed at slowing the spread of the virus.

The mayor said he sent Kemp a letter to inform the governor of his mask mandate. Kemp’s office did not immediately respond to an email message seeking comment Tuesday.

Kemp, a Republican, has refrained from ordering people to wear face coverings.

Confirmed infections and hospitalizations due to COVID-19 have been on the rise in Georgia.

Though not the worst in the state, Savannah and surrounding Chatham County have seen infections and deaths rise dramatically in the past two months. As of Monday, the county reported 1,140 coronavirus cases and 37 deaths — more than five times the number of cases and deaths that the county had when Georgia began reopening April 24.

Johnson said people with physical or medical reasons for not wearing masks would be exempt from his order, which also would not apply to people eating or drinking. Violators will face fines of up to $500.

“Before we cite you, we will offer you a face covering,” the mayor said. “So again, this is not to be punitive.”

Ib Tuesday the Georgia Department of Health confirmed more than 81,000 cases of COVID-19 in the state and 2,805 deaths.

Kemp To Tour State To Encourage Masks

Gov. Brian Kemp will embark on a statewide tour this week to encourage Georgians to wear face masks to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

His office says he’ll make stops from Albany to Dalton to encourage people to follow public health advice in advance of the 4th of July holiday weekend.

Late last week, Kemp said requiring people to wear face masks was “a bridge too far.”

He also said he’s not considering new restrictions even as COVID-19 cases continue to climb steadily across the state.

Fulton Health Official: It’s Time To Consider A Pause

Fulton county’s top health official says it’s time to consider pressing pause on Georgia’s continued reopening as COVID-19 cases continue to climb statewide.

“I personally think that we should be strongly looking at changing or at least dialing back on some of the loosening that has been happening,” said Dr. Lynn Paxton, director of the Fulton County Board of Health.

Georgia was one of the first states in the U.S. to begin lifting shelter-in-place restrictions in late April. In the time since, new coronavirus infections have been rising across the state. In recent days, new cases have been increasing at record rates.

Paxton says clusters of COVID-19 cases in Fulton County and elsewhere have been tied to places such as bars and churches where people are in close contact.

She also points out that lots of people aren’t doing a great job following the advice of health officials, who’ve recommended basic measures such as wearing facemasks while in public.

“I think they get the impression that somehow the pandemic is over or waning, and that it’s not necessary to do these prevention methods, and that’s very wrong,” she said. “That’s being shown to us on a daily basis by the rising case counts.”

Kemp has also not allowed local governments to issue their own public health guidance during the pandemic–something Paxton says she wishes she had the ability to do.

“It’s a political decision that needs to be made by our political leaders,” she said. “Basically, we as public health officials have to deal with the hand we’re dealt.”

Governor Extends State Of Emergency

Many of the current restrictions put in place in Georgia to stop the spread of COVID-19 will stay in place for at least a few more weeks.

Gov. Brian Kemp signed a set of executive orders Monday extending the public health state of emergency in Georgia through August 11.

Another order keeps certain public health requirements in place through July 15.

Among them, a ban on gatherings of more than 50 people unless everyone can keep six feet apart and the mandate that the medically fragile shelter in place.

Kemp said last week he didn’t think new restrictions were needed even as cases of COVID-19 continue to rise in the state.

Gwinnett Parents To Get A Choice On School

Parents of students enrolled in the Gwinnett County Public Schools should have received an email Monday asking if they want to continue with remote learning…or resume in-person classes when school starts August 5.

Like a few other districts, Gwinnett is giving families a choice.

They’ll need to decide fairly soon; the deadline is July 10.

The district says families who don’t state a preference by then will be assigned to in-person instruction.

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