Gov. Brian Kemp said Friday, July 17 he does not support a mask mandate to reduce COVID-19 spread but believes Georgians should “do the right thing” and follow precautions as many areas see an uptick in cases and a backlog in testing.
Kemp said he was “encouraging all Georgians from every corner of the state to do four things for four weeks” — wear a mask in public, stay 6 feet away from others, wash hands often, adhere to public health guidance and follow his executive order extending social distancing rules.
But that July 15 executive order also says any masking mandates put in place by city or county governments that go beyond the state’s voluntary measures “are suspended.”
Kemp sued Atlanta Thursday to block the city from enforcing its mask mandate and other rules related to the pandemic. The lawsuit argues that Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms has overstepped her authority.
"Governor Kemp must be allowed, as the chief executive of this state, to manage the public health emergency without Mayor Bottoms issuing void and unenforceable orders which only serve to confuse the public," the lawsuit states.
Kemp defended the suit during a news conference at the Capitol on Friday, saying it was filed “on behalf of business owners, their employees and hardworking Georgians throughout the region who continue to struggle to make ends meet.”
“Mayor Bottoms' mask mandate cannot be enforced, but her decision to shutter businesses and undermine economic growth is devastating,” Kemp said.
The governor asked local leaders to enforce the state executive order rather than enact mask mandates.
“While we all agree that wearing a mask is effective, I’m confident that Georgians don’t need a mandate to do the right thing,” he said. “I know that Georgians can rise to this challenge, and they will.”
Dr. Kathleen Toomey, commissioner of the Georgia Department of Public Health, also encouraged wearing masks, social distancing and taking other precautions.
“Wearing a mask prevents an infected person from spreading COVID-19 to others and is the best protection we have,” she said.
Statewide, 13.6% of COVID-19 tests are coming back positive, and hospitalizations have risen 39% over the past week, Toomey said.
The Northeast Georgia Health System was treating 106 COVID-19 patients at its facilities Friday, according to data on its website. On Friday, July 10, the system was treating 72 patients.
Toomey said the state has seen several outbreaks in spaces such as day care centers, churches and long-term care facilities. Contact tracing can help contain the spread, she said.
The state has almost 1,300 contact tracers and plans to hire 700 more over the next several weeks, she said. Contact tracers have interviewed more than 40,000 people who have tested positive and have identified more than 86,200 contacts, or people who could have been exposed.
Toomey said the state health department knows both testing and lab capacity need to be increased, and she said some commercial labs have not been communicating effectively about results. Some results are taking more than two weeks, Toomey said.
“That delay is unacceptable,” she said. “It’s unacceptable both for the individual infected but also for us to do the prevention and interventions we need to do.”
Kemp said the state will soon announce a new partner that will expand the state’s testing capacity by 10,000 a day and speed up results.
State officials also discussed back-to-school plans at Friday’s press conference, pointing to state guidance that includes preventative measures such as disinfecting surfaces and a recommendation to wear masks, as well as guidelines for temporary closures if needed.
Georgia schools Superintendent Richard Woods said that while students learn best in the classroom, safety was still a concern.
“We want our students to be physically back in school,” he said. “That is the best place for them to learn. There is no doubt about, when you talk with everyone, this is the ideal situation. But we also know that relationships are better formed in person. … But that being said, the safety of our students and our staff will continue to take precedent in our decision-making.”
The state has also released support documents for schools to guide them in returning to in-person, online or hybrid learning, Woods said.
Georgia has set aside $3 million in federal COVID-19 relief funding for WiFi transmitters to provide to school districts, and an estimated 135,000 students will have internet access through that effort, Woods said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.