Atlanta was the most recent major city to mandate masks in defiance of a gubernatorial order preempting local restrictions. A spokeswoman for Gov. Brian Kemp (R) deemed the Atlanta mayor’s order to wear masks “unenforceable,” but the governor has taken no legal action to stop the mask mandate.
“I stand by the enforceability of our ordinance, and that ordinance will be enforced in the same way we would enforce any other city ordinance,” Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms (D) said. That includes on city-owned property: “The Atlanta airport — the world’s busiest airport — is owned and operated by the city.”
Bottoms said she decided to go through with the order after seeing that Kemp remained silent when the mayor of Savannah, also a Democrat, enacted a mask-wearing ordinance there.
Kemp “could have invalidated my order, and I’m glad he chose not to,” Savannah Mayor Van Johnson said. “The goal was not to be political; the goal was to protect Savannahians.”
The coastal city is dealing with a surging caseload of coronavirus infections and had an influx of summer tourists from neighboring Florida and South Carolina during the Fourth of July holiday.
“We were on a dangerous trajectory,” Johnson said. “We had more cases from May to June than we had had at any other time of the virus combined. With a very busy holiday season and wonderful weather, this was a recipe for disaster for us if we did not take some kind of proactive action.”
Columbia, S.C., Mayor Steve Benjamin (D) likewise wondered whether state leaders would challenge his decision to mandate masks last month. South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster (R) has repeatedly argued that mask mandates are unenforceable and possibly unconstitutional. When Benjamin got a call from the state attorney general a day after announcing the order, he asked, half-jokingly, “Are you suing me?”
Benjamin was told not to worry — the mask mandate was fine.
Columbia’s June 23 order came just after Greenville, S.C., imposed a requirement to wear masks inside grocery stores and pharmacies.
“The governor was already advocating for masks, and we did give him heads-up and he had absolutely nothing but encouragement — at least, nothing negative,” Mayor Knox White (R) said.
White said he heard from residents afraid to go into grocery stores and noticed social distancing began to lapse.
“The voluntary effort that was so well-received at the beginning was beginning to falter,” the mayor said. “We needed not just to adopt a new requirement but also to grab people’s attention again.”
In mid-June, as cases and hospitalizations rose precipitously, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R) let local governments require masks, as they had been requesting for several weeks. Mayors across the state quickly imposed the requirement.
“I would support a statewide mask program. I believe that it would save lives,” Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego (D) said. But, she said, “there’s a political aspect now.”
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) halted local mask orders in April, only to mandate them for most of the state last week.
“He was concerned about mandating masking because of the claims of some of his constituency that there was some kind of liberty issue at stake,” Austin Mayor Steve Adler (D) said. “I never understood that argument, because I don’t think anybody has a liberty interest in contributing affirmatively to the spread of disease.”
Not long before the statewide order, the governor conceded that individual cities could tell businesses to require masks. “It was kind of the answer to a riddle that wasn’t a riddle,” Adler said.
But the governor has resisted giving more control back to local authorities. Abbott said in an interview Monday that local officials should focus on enforcing the orders already in place rather than being “more punitive.”
“If I could, right now, I would put the community under a stay-at-home order,” Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo (D) said as hospitals, testing supplies and contact tracing resources in Houston are overwhelmed. “Face coverings aren’t going to cut it.” But she said doing so would “be breaking the law.”
Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey (R) has resisted a statewide mask requirement, and her coronavirus orders say only that the state’s two largest counties, Jefferson and Mobile, can be more stringent than the state. But State Health Officer Scott Harris said he has been encouraging local mask orders.
“Frankly, I really believe that implementing an order in an area where there is a lot of opposition would not accomplish much,” he said. “What we’ve tried to do, and I think it’s consistent with how Alabamians prefer to do things, is get data down to local officials and get those officials to obtain buy-in locally as much as they possibly can.”
Montgomery Mayor Steven Reed (D) said his office interpreted the governor’s order as allowing for local orders that are stricter but not looser. He implemented a mask requirement by executive order in mid-June; the city council adopted it as law Tuesday night.
“Our numbers have gone down by almost half in terms of new cases from where we were when we did the executive order,” Reed said. “It doesn’t hurt that this has become less politicized in the last few weeks as more states have seen a surge in covid cases.” He noted that Ivey wore a mask at her last news conference.
“That takes some of the partisanship out of it,” he said. “Had it not been there in the first place, we would be much further along.”
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds (R) on Wednesday said a mask order in Muscatine, the first in the state, was invalid. But she said she would consider allowing some Iowa counties where cases are spiking to mandate masks.
Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine (R) never blocked local mask requirements. But Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley (D) said local leaders earlier in the pandemic followed the governor’s lead as he shut down businesses and required masks. Public health in the state is managed at the county level, but county leaders lack enforcement power.
“I don’t think there was a comfort level in the state by the locals to use our own authority,” Whaley said.
Then, the governor reversed course, undoing the mask mandate and lifting other restrictions. Cases and hospitalizations rose. Dayton, on the advice of local public officials, last week became the first major city in Ohio to require masks. In just a few days, all of the big cities in the state had adopted mask mandates.
On Tuesday, DeWine changed his mind again, mandating masks in counties where virus spread is high, including Dayton’s Montgomery County. It remains unclear how that order will be enforced. Some local officials have said it is not their responsibility.
“The calls to my office haven’t been pleasant and the emails haven’t been nice,” Whaley said, a level of vitriol she traces to the President Trump’s resistance to masking. “This would all be fine if Donald Trump would just wear a mask.”
But she has also received messages of support. And when her husband went to a supermarket just outside the city a few days after the order, she said, the shift was overwhelming. While maybe a quarter of customers wore masks before, now all but one did. To her, it suggested the order is changing social norms rather than just scaring people into complying.
“We’re stating what it means to be a good citizen in Dayton,” she said. “That’s what laws do.”
Abigail Hauslohner contributed to this report.
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