By Greg Bluestein, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Troy Warren for SavannahNewsAndTalk.Com
Mayor: ‘We’re on a very dangerous trend’
The city of Savannah is once again requiring the use of masks to halt the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, more than a year after it became the first city in Georgia to impose a requirement for face coverings.
Savannah Mayor Van Johnson said Monday that he reinstated a mask mandate he let lapse in May to combat the spread of the highly contagious delta variant after seeing new cases in surrounding Chatham County spike and efforts to vaccinate more residents stall.
Johnson said that he didn’t want to “take a backward step in our return to normalcy” but was alarmed by data that showed the rate of new COVID-19 cases tripled in Chatham County over a two-week span.
“It’s clear to us we’re on a very dangerous trend,” Johnson said in an interview. “And in order to try to slow this trend down, the mask mandate was the least invasive and destructive way to do it.”
It immediately sparked a fresh debate among city and county leaders over whether to follow Savannah’s lead and take more drastic action. The coastal city appeared to be the first in the state to reimpose mask restrictions, according to the Georgia Municipal Association.
A group of local leaders is set to hold a conference call Tuesday with Dr. Carlos del Rio, an infectious disease specialist at Emory University, to discuss ways to limit the pandemic. A stark phone call with del Rio in March 2020 pushed many government officials to consider more severe steps.
“Right now, I’m hoping that more and more people, even though they may not have been vaccinated yet, will look at the data objectively,” said Sandy Springs Mayor Rusty Paul, who added that he prefers ways to exert societal pressure rather than government mandates to encourage mask usage.
Johnson acknowledged that the mandate is “effectively punishing” the roughly 42% of Chatham County residents who are fully vaccinated, but he said he had little choice, particularly with a rise in breakthrough infections in vaccinated people and an uptick in cases in the counties surrounding Savannah.
“The minority is suffering because the majority won’t act. I’m vaccinated and I don’t want to mask,” he said. “But we’re having people with breakthrough cases. I just want to keep people safe.”
The order is not as far-reaching as Savannah’s previous requirement. It applies to city buildings and places with more vulnerable populations, such as childcare centers and hospitals. But it doesn’t require people entering restaurants and other businesses to wear masks.
Johnson imposed the limits amid a worldwide surge of coronavirus cases that began hitting Georgia this month, much of it driven by the highly contagious delta variant that’s quickly spreading among the unvaccinated.
On Monday, Georgia reported 1,614 new confirmed and probable coronavirus infections. The seven-day rolling average of probable and confirmed coronavirus cases in Georgia on Monday was 2,157, the highest point since March 9, and nearly five times higher than it was before the July 4th holiday, according to state health data. Meanwhile, the pace of vaccinations has slowed, hovering at 40% fully vaccinated statewide.
In Chatham County, like the rest of Georgia, test positivity also is climbing. Statewide, the rolling average for test positivity is nearly 10%, a sign testing isn’t keeping pace with the pandemic. In Chatham County on Monday, the rolling average was 14.4%.
Hospitalizations for COVID-19 in Georgia have also steadily increased in recent days, and COVID-19 patients now represent close to 9% of hospitalizations in the state. While this is down significantly from the January peak, health experts say it is a concerning trend.
A chain reaction?
Just as Johnson’s decision in 2020 paved the way for other local government leaders to impose mask requirements, reinstating a mandate could result in a new wave of local restrictions to fight the spread of the virus.
When Johnson made Savannah the first city in Georgia to require masks in June 2020, it set up a showdown with Gov. Brian Kemp over whether local officials could take more sweeping steps than the state to contain the coronavirus.
The Republican governor has long opposed a statewide mask requirement, saying people “don’t need a government mandate to do the right thing,” and he signed an executive order last year that blocked local governments from enacting more stringent or lenient rules than the state.
But Savannah’s mask mandate set off a chain reaction of local leaders who flouted those rules, with the city of Atlanta and more than a dozen other city and county governments soon imposing their own mask requirements.
Kemp went to court to block the mandates. But he dropped his lawsuit in August and allowed some local governments who met a coronavirus “threshold” to impose the restrictions. Last month, he ended the public health state of emergency that gave him sweeping powers to enact or block local rules.
The governor’s office didn’t directly comment on Savannah’s decision. A spokeswoman pointed to Kemp’s consistent calls for residents to get vaccinated, calling them the “safest and most effective way for all Georgians to return to normal.”
Kemp took a more strident stance in an interview with Channel 2 Action News on Monday, saying Savannah’s new orders were unnecessary.
“I think people are educated enough on how to deal with COVID,” he said. “We don’t need mandates. We need to continue to share the data and the facts.”
‘It’s worth it’
It’s not yet clear whether other local leaders will follow Savannah’s lead.
Athens-Clarke County Mayor Kelly Girtz said he’s not yet ready to revive a mask mandate that local lawmakers enacted last summer during a surge of new cases. But he’s worried about an uptick in infections over the past month that tripled from a low point earlier this year.
“I will be making a continued push for residents, including new-to-campus students, to get vaccinated,” Girtz said. “It’s quick, easy, free and can save your life or that of those around you.”
Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said through a spokesman that officials continue to monitor the data and confer with health experts over whether to broaden the emergency order, which now requires masks for all who enter city facilities.
And Paul, the Sandy Springs mayor, said his staff is focusing on promoting vaccinations and trying to cut through the torrent of fraudulent claims about the vaccine, though he said the strategy could change depending on advice from public health experts.
“There’s just so much misinformation floating out there,” Paul said.
It’s little surprise that Savannah became the first city in Georgia to reimpose the mask requirement.
Savannah’s leaders are among the most proactive in the state in pushing for restrictions to fight the disease. A bright-green “MASK UP” sign long stretched across City Hall, and a team of staffers spread across the city during tourist season last year to gently enforce the mask mandate.
Johnson invoked that assertive approach as he urged local schools and colleges to take similar action. He said donning a mask is the “simple, easy and least expensive” way to protect Georgians.
“I’d hope the governor would focus on getting more people vaccinated and find ways to keep people safe in Savannah,” the mayor said. “If wearing a mask is a way to do that, it’s worth it.”
Staff writers Ben Brasch, J.D. Capelouto, Helena Oliviero and J. Scott Trubey contributed to this article.
In Other NEWS