Self-described “politically incorrect conservative” Brian Kemp, governor of Georgia, a state with a powerful resurgence of COVID-19 cases after the aggressive business reopenings he championed, is battling to force local governments in his state to abandon mask-wearing ordinances. In issuing an executive order extending some restrictions on large public gathering, Kemp went out of his way to assert a preemption of local rules more stringent than his own voluntary approach to masks, as the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports:
The governor’s order, signed late Wednesday, puts the state on a collision course with local leaders and public health experts who say requiring face coverings is an essential step to containing the spread of the coronavirus.
Though Kemp’s previous orders have barred local governments from taking more restrictive steps than the state, the rules he signed on Wednesday were the first to explicitly ban cities and counties from requiring the use of masks or other face coverings.
Many local leaders were defiant in the face of Kemp’s efforts not to offend anti-mask conservatives:
“It’s officially official. Governor Kemp does not give a damn about us,” said Savannah Mayor Van Johnson, whose city was the first in Georgia to require masks. “In Savannah, we will continue to keep the faith and follow the science. Masks will continue to be available…”
Along with a cluster of suburban communities, the group of cities that have approved mask mandates includes Atlanta, Augusta and Kemp’s hometown of Athens-Clarke County, which unanimously approved the restrictions last week.
Kemp has often worn a mask in public lately, and has warned Georgians that voluntary mask use is a good idea if they want college football to resume this autumn (a pretty important priority in Deep South states). He appeared to play it both ways when greeting President Trump, who’s in Atlanta this week for a speaking appearance; his mask was dangling from his ear when a non-mask-wearing Trump descended to the tarmac at the Atlanta airport, but the governor did soon put it back on.
The official rationale for Kemp’s hostility to mask orders is that they are “unenforceable.” That’s probably true if you don’t even try. But he’s bucking a national trend: The same day he took on local governments in Georgia, Alabama governor Kay Ivey, just as obnoxious a conservative as Kemp in an even more conservative southern state, issued a statewide mask order. Half the states now require masks in public for most people, and another, Texas, requires them in coronavirus hot spots. In still other states — notably Georgia’s southern neighbor, Florida, where COVID-19 is proliferating at alarming rates — allow local governments to require masks if they see fit to do so. Before Kemp, the most conspicuous opponent of locally determined mask orders was Arizona governor Doug Ducey, but even he backed down as the pandemic raged anew.
Kemp has not inspired a lot of confidence in his citizens during the crisis. According to recent data from a four-university consortium, his approval rating in handling COVID-19 dropped from 53 percent in late April to 33 percent in early May, right after he engineered a reopening of business operations so premature that even Trump was upset by it. It appears he is now trying to walk a fine line between responsibility and “political incorrectness.” It’s a dangerous game with so many lives at stake.