The Northeast Georgia Health System is sponsoring coverage directly related to public safety so that it can be made available free to non-subscribers as a public service. News coverage is independently reported. We know that you need accurate and up-to-date information about the effects of the coronavirus in the state and our region. Please consider supporting our work by subscribing to The Times. This article includes contributions from The Times staff.
Local governments in Hall County have not changed mask policies and Gov. Brian Kemp also repeated his vow Wednesday that he won’t impose a statewide mask rule or restrict business and public activities.
Infections and hospitalizations from COVID-19 in Georgia and Hall County continued to rise Thursday. There were 83 people with confirmed COVID cases hospitalized at Northeast Georgia Health System. That number has almost tripled in a week’s time from 28. The peak number of COVID cases at NGHS was 355 in January, but following vaccination efforts, numbers had dropped into the teens. More information on the state of COVID-19 in Hall County is available at gainesvilletimes.com/coronavirus.
“Georgia will not lock down or impose statewide mask mandates,” Kemp tweeted on Wednesday, repeating a stance that has remained consistent since the governor lifted closures early in the pandemic.
Kemp had earlier tried to use his powers under the public health state of emergency to keep cities and counties from issuing their own mask rules, suing Atlanta to try to block its mask mandate. That showdown ended in a compromise in which Kemp said cities and counties could require face coverings if infections were above a certain level. The public health state of emergency expired July 1.
So far, no municipalities in Hall County, nor the county government, have said they will change their masking guidelines or impose a mask mandate. Some had required the masks earlier in the pandemic while others encouraged masks.
Casey Ramsey, Hall County’s director of emergency management and homeland security, wrote in a statement Wednesday, July 28, that the county will not be changing its guidelines at this time.
“We are closely monitoring local health data and are continuing to work closely with local and state health officials in order to make the most prudent decisions necessary to keep both our employees and our citizens safe,” Ramsey wrote. “Should a decision be made regarding any changes to Hall County Government’s current COVID-19 operations, we will let the public know.”
Gainesville Mayor Danny Dunagan said in a phone interview Wednesday, July 28, that city officials had not discussed changes to any masking guidelines. The City Council did not discuss masking at its work session on July 29, though multiple council members during the meeting urged the public to get vaccinated.
On Wednesday, Kemp again focused on encouraging people to get vaccinated voluntarily. Georgia ranks in the bottom 10 states for vaccination rates. In Hall County, 36% are fully vaccinated, whereas the state rate is 40%.
“My family, myself, and other state leaders have all rolled up their sleeves and gotten their shot,” Kemp tweeted. “I encourage all Georgians who have concerns or questions to talk to a medical provider and get vaccinated as quickly as possible.”
Hall County court administrator Jason Stephenson said there would be no changes to protocols at the Hall County Courthouse at this time “while we’re reviewing the latest (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) guidance and continuing to monitor local trends and conditions.”
The Atlanta-based CDC on Tuesday changed earlier guidelines, recommending that even vaccinated people return to wearing masks indoors in areas with substantial or high transmission. CDC figures show 138 of 159 Georgia counties in those zones, including Hall County. The CDC also recommended that everyone in schools wear masks indoors, accelerating the shift in local school policies.
Kemp did not challenge school rules last year. Both Gainesville and Hall County school system have said masks will be optional this school year but also have noted that guidelines are subject to change.
So far, a small fraction of Georgia's 180-plus school districts are requiring masks. But the districts that have done so include six of the 11 largest districts in the state and represent more than 28% of all students statewide, including Gwinnett County, the state’s largest district.
Kemp had vowed in May that “We’re not going to have a mask mandate for our kids," but an executive order he issued that month fell short of actually banning masks in schools. Instead, the governor said school districts couldn't cite Georgia's public health state of emergency as a basis for requiring masks.
The Times staff members Conner Evans, Nick Watson, Ben Anderson and Shannon Casas contributed.