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It’s Kemp vs. Mayors In Georgia Mask Mandate Battle

It looks increasingly likely that there won’t be any SEC football this year but Georgians are getting something almost as good (not really). Gov. Brian Kemp and the mayors of several cities around the state are engaging in a game of political football over mandates for masks. The irony is that the two sides are not all that far apart.

As the pandemic in Georgia spiraled out of control, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms issued an order earlier this month that required the use of masks in public buildings. This did not sit well with Gov. Brian Kemp, especially when other Georgia cities followed suit. Soon Augusta, Athens, and Savannah were among the other municipalities in Georgia that were taking advantage of a loophole to go beyond Gov. Kemp’s emergency order and require masks in public places.

That was the situation until this week. On Wednesday, Gov. Kemp issued a new Executive Order extending Georgia’s state of emergency through the end of July. The order also prohibited mayors from enacting their own mask mandates. When Mayor Bottoms refused to withdraw Atlanta’s mandate, Gov. Kemp announced that the state would file suit.

The irony is that Kemp is not an anti-mask Republican. He has engaged in a pro-mask campaign that included a #WearAMask tour of the state and included numerous pictures of the governor wearing his own masks in a variety of locations. These included Waffle House and Chick-fil-a-themed masks as well as the Georgia Bulldog mask seen below that should be the envy and aspiration of every true Georgian.

Kemp’s new Executive Order “strongly encourages” citizens to wear masks. It also takes the new step of allowing local school boards to require masks. Under previous orders, schools had only been allowed to encourage mask use.

Kemp’s position can be seen more clearly in his statements that he supports mask use but considers mandates to be unenforceable. Earlier this month, a Kemp spokeswoman said, “Like all of the local mask mandates, Mayor Bottoms’ order is unenforceable. We continue to encourage Georgians to do the right thing and wear a mask voluntarily.”

The fight in Georgia is not about the effectiveness of masks or conspiracy theories that masks are dangerous (roll eyes) or that they represent tyranny. The fight in Georgia is about municipal-level federalism and the belief that local governments are better able to react to the situation in their county or city than state or federal governments. For decades, the belief that the government closest to the people is the best government to make decisions for the people has been a fundamental conservative proposition.

On that basis, Gov. Kemp is wrong. The Executive Order is a one-size-fits-all solution for a state in which the level of infection varies wildly. The counties that make up metro Atlanta have the highest level of Coronavirus in the state and should be able to enact stricter rules to slow transmission of the virus.

The same goes for other cities. Looking at the state map on Georgia’s COVID-19 status website, it is easy to tell where the cities are by the darker shading that represents more Coronavirus cases. We know that the virus spreads best where the population is more densely concentrated. It follows that these areas could benefit from guidelines that are more strict than rural areas such as Montgomery County in central Georgia where only 68 cases have been reported.

The right and left fall into the same trap: The belief that government holds a giant remote control that it clicks to make people move. The left assumes that people won’t wear masks without a mandate and the right thinks that the shelter orders convinced people to stay home and that the economy would be booming without the lockdowns. Both are wrong.

People are capable of assessing danger and making decisions for themselves. When cases spiked in the spring, many people didn’t need government to tell them to stay home. A study by economists shows that the economic devastation was similar regardless of whether areas had shelter areas or not. People voted with their feet, stocked up on toilet paper, and stayed home.

The same thing is happening now with masks. As new cases spike and the death toll rises, Americans are overwhelmingly in support of masks, social distancing, and other mitigations. Ipsos reported that 62 percent wear a mask at all times when outside the house and another 23 percent wear one sometimes. My personal experience as I visit stores and restaurants confirms this. People in my area are increasingly wearing masks on their own as the danger rises. They aren’t waiting for Gov. Kemp to tell them they must wear a mask.

That doesn’t mean that a mask mandate is worthless. Mandates can help at the margins. People who haven’t seen Gov. Kemp’s pro-mask campaign and who believe the fake news that masks are ineffective might well be persuaded by an order when they are not by a strong suggestion. There are an abundance of conspiracy theories to overcome as well as the initial recommendations from health authorities that people should not wear masks. These comments, largely made before widespread transmission of the virus and intended to preserve masks for health professionals when they were in short supply, have been frequently taken out of contexts and repeated by people who want to confuse the issue.

If Gov. Kemp does not want to issue a statewide mask order as Republican Gov. Kay Ivey of Alabama, the Trumpiest state in the Union, did on Wednesday, he should at least let local officials act on their own (provided that it does not break state law and I’ve seen no evidence that it does). Georgia’s leaders should not be at odds over mask mandates. Rather, they should be working together to the common purpose of getting the pandemic under control.

If you would like to continue the discussion on social media, you can visit David Thornton’s Facebook page or follow him on Twitter.

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