WABE’s Week in Review: COVID-19 Surge Forces Local Mask Mandates, A Stand Your Ground Trial And More

A person wearing a mask walks near the StateFarm Arena in Atlanta.
A person wearing a mask walks near the StateFarm Arena in Atlanta.
Credit Brynn Anderson / Associated Press

On the Week in Review for July 5-11, WABE Managing Editor Alex Helmick highlights stories from our journalists on local governments issuing mask mandates amid the surge in new, confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Georgia. Some local governments in Georgia are requiring people in public to wear them so as not to spread the disease.  Savannah was the first and several followed, including Atlanta on Wednesday.

“We’ve given a lot of thought to it, and we will be going forward with a mask ordinance in our city,” said Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms on Wednesday to WABE’s Emma Hurt.

According to the governor’s office, no local government can issue stricter rules than those that come from the state. Gov. Brian Kemp’s office has called the move by local governments “unenforceable.”

“I don’t think this is a situation where Kemp’s executive order specifically preempts any local ordinance, specifically on the face mask issue,” said WABE Legal Analyst Page Pate on “All Things Considered with Jim Burress.”

Political Maneuvering… 

Keisha LAnce Bottoms and Brian Kemp Associated PRess file photos
Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (Associated Press)

Gov. Kemp will not jump in to the legal waters and challenge the local governments, according to “Political Breakfast” contributor Brian Robinson. In this week’s podcast with Dennis O’Hayer, Robinson and Tharon Johnson review the political fallout, if any, from the mask requirements and have some sage advice: Wear a damn mask.  

Meantime, Atlanta’s Mayor Bottoms has risen to the national stage recently. She has faced both support and criticism for all the major events happening in her city, notably the shooting death of Rayshard Brooks by a former Atlanta police officer and her firing several officers after pulling two students from a car. She has become a reported contender to be a vice-presidential candidate with presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden. 

“I think my experience does qualify me,” Bottoms said to WABE. “When you are leading a major city, you are dealing with a number of issues all at once. You are dealing with the same issues across this country.”

At Capacity… 

Hospital beds are prepared to receive COVID-19 patients at Ain Shams University Field Hospital in Cairo, Egypt, Wednesday, June 17, 2020. The hospital has a capacity of 179 beds including 11 Intensive Care Units, Dr. Ashraf Omar, dean of the medical school said Wednesday in televised comments. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty)
Critical ICU bed capacity is at 18% statewide, and for some rural areas it is down to just 5%. (Nariman El-Mofty/ Associated Press)

Hospital capacity for critical intensive care unit beds in Georgia is shrinking as the number of new COVID-19 cases rises dramatically across the state, and it is pushing some rural hospitals to their limit. Critical ICU bed capacity is at 18% statewide, and for some rural areas, it is down to just 5%.

“A lot of us say we’re full when we’re at 80 percent, but now we’re at 5 and 10%, and that’s alarming,” said Monty Veasey, Georgia Alliance of Community Hospitals.

The low capacity is not due to physical beds, but staffing, said Veasey.

“Beds are not the issue, and ICU beds apparently are not the issue,” confirmed Jimmy Lewis, CEO for Home Town Health, which advocates for about 60 rural hospitals. “What the issue is is staff. In a small rural hospital staff is so critically important. You’ve got some hospitals that have run into a staffing situation… they go critical in a heartbeat.”

Stand Your Ground Gets Tested… 

William Marcus Wilson is a 21-year-old man charged with murder in the shooting death of a white teenager in southeast Georgia. In June, Wilson–who is biracial–and his girlfriend–who is white– made a Taco Bell run. On their way from the restaurant, according to lawyers, they were threatened by a group of white people in a Chevy truck. The group shouted racial slurs and tried to run them off the road on a highway in Statesboro, according to Wilson’s attorneys. Wilson shot his gun. Seventeen-year-old Haley Hutcheson, who was in the truck, was killed.

“What we ask is that he be considered equally through this process,” said Wilson’s father, Pat Wilson. Stand Your Ground laws should apply to his son, said Wilson, a Coweta County fire chief.

A gag order has since been issued on the case as a bail hearing for the 21-year-old was rescheduled.