ATLANTA – The mayors of some of Georgia’s largest cities on Friday slammed Gov. Brian Kemp’s new order that aims to limit local efforts to curb the coronavirus pandemic.
In an open letter, the mayors of Atlanta, Savannah, Athens-Clarke County and Augusta-Richmond County suggested the Republican governor was putting politics above public health, and they defended mask requirements.
“While Governor Kemp may find it politically necessary to hew to the course of others who live in the shadow of the former president, we are more concerned with the health and livelihood of friends we see in the grocery store, at the schools where we bring our children each morning, and who we encounter as we head into work,” the four mayors — all Democrats — said. “They overwhelmingly articulate support for the smart, tested public health measures that we have promoted for the past eighteen months.”
An email to the governor’s office was not immediately returned.
Amid a new surge of coronavirus cases that is straining hospitals, Kemp signed an executive order Thursday that says cities cannot require businesses and sports teams to enforce local pandemic restrictions.
The governor presented the move as a way to protect businesses, saying some people in the state wanted to return to “lockdown mode” and close businesses.
“Local governments will not be able to force businesses to be the city’s mask police, the vaccine police or any other burdensome restriction that will only lead to employees being let go, revenue tanking and businesses closing their doors,” Kemp said at a news conference announcing the order.
New Orleans, San Francisco and New York City have required customers to show proof of vaccination at restaurants, bars and other businesses. New Orleans also allows a negative COVID test.
In their letter, the four mayors shot back that they understood the importance of maintaining prosperous small businesses, but businesses had asked them to ensure that customers and workers can be safe. The mayors are Atlanta’s Keisha Lance Bottoms, Savannah’s Van Johnson, Athens-Clarke County’s Kelly Girtz and Augusta-Richmond County’s Hardie Davis.
The governor’s order does not apply to schools, where Kemp has left decisions about masks to local officials and fights over masking continue. It also allows businesses to impose their own restrictions.
It wasn’t clear that the order would have any effect on mask mandates currently in effect in Atlanta, Savannah and Athens.
The mayors nonetheless defended masks as “necessary” during the latest surge and said their efficacy in keeping people safe has been “well documented.” They pushed Kemp for masks at state buildings.
“Asking others to mask is no different than asking motorists to stop at a red light or asking residents to keep a dog on a leash at the park,” they said. “It is the neighborly approach that we were all raised to follow.”
The recent explosion of COVID cases in Georgia has been fueled by the delta variant of the virus among people who are unvaccinated. Between January and Aug. 17, less than 20,000 of the more than 4.3 million people in Georgia who are fully vaccinated have tested positive for COVID, according to the state Department of Public Health. Less than 200 of them have been hospitalized due to COVID.
Statewide, more than 5,000 patients are now hospitalized with COVID and more than 90 percent of ICU beds are full. Only 42 percent of the state’s population is fully vaccinated, well below the national average. The state is averaging nearly 8,000 positive tests a day over the last seven days, up from just hundreds at the start of last month.
Hospitals have encouraged ambulances to take patients elsewhere for quicker treatment and have put off elective procedures.
Phoebe Putney Health System said it was caring for 199 coronavirus patients at its three hospitals in the Albany area on Friday, the highest number of COVID patients it has ever had.
“If people in our community expect there to be a hospital bed for them when they need it, they need to help us slow the spread of the virus,” President and CEO Scott Steiner said in a statement. “Too many people are attending large gatherings with few, if any, safety precautions, and right now, that’s just dangerous.”
Northeast Georgia Health System has set up tents at its Gainesville and Braselton locations to add capacity for emergency care, and staff have had to see patients in ambulances because of a lack of space.
Kemp has pledged an additional $125 million for hospital staffing, but he has repeatedly expressed opposition to mask or vaccine mandates.
Schools are also continuing to face COVID challenges. Lamar County, south of Atlanta, and Jenkins County, south of Augusta, became the latest school districts to announce they would pause in-person learning because so many students and employees had been sent home due to COVID-19 exposure.
At least 22 districts and charters have sent all students home for a time, while at least five others have adopted A/B schedules where students attend school in person every other day. The measures overall affect more than 60,000 students statewide.
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