By Joe Johnson
Athens-Clarke County is defying Gov. Brian Kemp’s order that explicitly bans local municipalities from ordering people to wear masks in public places.
Kemp on Wednesday voided mask-wearing requirements that at least 15 local governments across the state had adopted.
Athens Mayor Kelly Girtz on Thursday said that the face-covering ordinance that took effect July 9, “remains on the books.”
County commissioners unanimously approved the ordinance on July 7, and the ordinance remains in effect until Aug. 4, unless extended.
“I have been in regular communication with mayors in several other Georgia cities with mask requirements, and we wish for our local requirements to remain in place. We strongly believe this is within our authority,” Girtz said.
“On the practical matter of mask requirements, it is impossible to simultaneously want a successful economy without allowing the tools – such as masks – that will create the vehicle for this success. Otherwise, we risk continued shutdowns and medical crisis. Governors in Alabama, Texas and North Carolina recognize this, as do health experts from throughout the globe,” the mayor said.
According to the Girtz, the police department and county Code Enforcement Division have been told to not issue summonses during the first week of the ordinance’s roll-out, and instead “simply seek compliance” and distribute masks to people who don’t have them.
Kemp’s order that bans local governments from requiring mask wearing came as Georgia continued to see a high level of new COVID-19 infections.
Kemp was among the first governors to ease earlier restrictions, and while infections declined for weeks afterwards, they began to rise in June.
As of 3 p.m. Wednesday, the state Department of Public Health indicated that there were 127,834 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Georgia, with 14,674 hospitalizations, 2,702 ICU admissions, and 3, 091 deaths,
In Athens-Clarke County there have been 1,087 confirmed cases, 76 hospitalizations and 15 deaths, according to the DPH.
According to Harvard Global Health Institute’s Covid Risk level, Athens-Clarke County is at 25.4 new daily cases per 100,000 residents, putting the county at “Covid Risk Level: RED TIPPING POINT Stay-at-home orders necessary.”
The state reports that 84 percent of available hospital critical beds are in use.
Nationally, there have been 3.4 million confirmed cases of COVID-19, with 135,991 deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The Athens face-covering ordinance is an attempt to slow the spread of the disease, which has shown no signs of abating.
The measure requires that people cover their noses and mouths while in public.
A first and second violation or the ordinance is punishable by a $25 fine, and the third and subsequent violations are punishable by a $100 fine.
There are exceptions to the local ordinance:
In personal vehicles and religious establishments;
Persons who are alone in enclosed spaces or are only with other household members;
During outdoor physical activity, provided the person observes social distancing of at least six feet;
While drinking, eating, or smoking;
When wearing a face covering causes or aggravates a health condition;
When wearing a face covering would prevent the receipt of personal services;
When a person is 10 years of age or younger.
The ordinance does not require medical grade masks. Face coverings may be fashioned from scarves, bandanas, or other suitable fabrics or face shields. The mask must cover the mouth and nose of the wearer. Information about how to make cloth face coverings is available through the Athens-Clarke County Unified Government (ACCGov) COVID-19 website at www.accgov.com/coronavirus.
ACCGov has also obtained some reusable cloth face covers for public distribution through the Transit Department, at ACCGov public facilities, and through community partners such as the Clarke County School District food distribution pods, the Athens Community Council on Aging, and the Athens Free Clinic mobile COVID-19 testing unit. Additional cloth masks and community distribution for those who are unable to obtain or make their own is forthcoming.
The ordinance also requires persons entering commercial establishments to wear face coverings or masks while inside. While the requirement does not apply to religious establishments, the use of face covers is highly recommended during religious activity. All restaurants, retail stores, salons, grocery stores, and pharmacies must require their employees to wear a face cover while having face-to-face interaction with the public.
Persons who are unable to safely wear a face covering due to age or an underlying health condition or who are unable to remove a face covering without the assistance of others are exempt from the ordinance.
The full ordinance, along with other COVID-19 information, local responses, and information about how to make face covers from materials at home, is available at www.accgov.com/coronavirus.