Georgia Governor to Drop Lawsuit Over Atlanta Mask Mandate

In a series of executive orders, Kemp has strongly urged people to wear masks but declined to require them

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp puts on a mask after speaking at a press conference announcing statewide expanded COVID testing, Aug. 10, 2020, in Atlanta.
Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp on Thursday said he’s dropping a lawsuit against the city of Atlanta in a dispute over the city’s requirement to wear masks in public and other restrictions related to the coronavirus pandemic.

Kemp had sued Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and the City Council to block them from implementing restrictions at the local level, even as case counts and hospitalizations in the state soared.

The Republican governor argued that local governments can't impose measures that are more or less restrictive than those in his statewide executive orders, which have strongly urged people to wear masks but not required them.

He has sought to block local governments from issuing orders requiring that masks be worn, but several cities, including Atlanta, have done it anyway.

In addition to mandating masks, Bottoms, a Democrat, made statements in July indicating that the city would return to Phase One of its reopening plan, meaning that people would have to return to sheltering at home and restaurants would have to return to takeout and delivery only. She later said those statements were recommendations, not legal orders, and that Kemp did not understand what she was doing.

A statement sent out by Kemp's office on Thursday said the lawsuit is being dropped because of Bottoms' “concession regarding the city’s Phase One roll-back plan and following her refusal in mediation to further negotiate a compromise.” A spokeswoman for Georgia's attorney general declined to comment.

Bottoms responded with a statement of her own.

“From the start of this pandemic, my only goal has been to help save lives,” she said. “While it is unfortunate that the Governor seeks to intentionally mislead the people of our state by issuing a woefully inaccurate statement regarding our good faith negotiations and the City’s reopening recommendations, I am grateful that this lawsuit has been withdrawn and the time and resources of our city and state can be better used to combat COVID-19.”

Georgia has had more than 228,000 confirmed cases of the virus, according to data released Thursday by the state Department of Public Health. At least 4,538 people have died in Georgia after contracting the virus.

Confirmed cases, hospitalizations and deaths have ballooned sharply since early June, after the state, under Kemp's direction, became one of the first in the nation to allow businesses to reopen in the spring. The lawsuit filed July 16 asked a judge to overturn Bottoms’ orders that are more restrictive than Kemp’s, block her from issuing any more such orders, and instruct the City Council not to ratify Bottoms’ actions or adopt any ordinances inconsistent with Kemp’s orders. It also sought to prohibit Bottoms from making public statements asserting she has authority that exceeds Kemp’s, and to require city officials to enforce “all provisions” of Kemp’s existing orders.

In a court filing last month, lawyers for the city argued that the lawsuit is barred by sovereign immunity, which says state and local governments can’t be sued without their consent. The city has the right to take action to protect the public, and its mask mandate is not inconsistent with or preempted by the governor’s order, the city’s filing argued.

“In the absence of state leadership on this issue, local governments have stepped in to protect their citizens,” the city’s filing said.

The Georgia Municipal Association, which represents municipal governments throughout the state, as well as Democratic state lawmakers and several labor unions had filed briefs saying the governor has overstepped his authority by trying to limit additional measures taken by local governments to fight the spread of the coronavirus.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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