Gov. Brian Kemp is taking Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms to court over her defiance of his executive order wiping out a mask-wearing mandate and other restrictions she instituted to fight the COVID-19 pandemic. Meanwhile, the cities of Brookhaven and Dunwoody are backing down from enforcing their own recently enacted mask-mandates, while using strong language in urging people to use the protection.

The local cities were among others around the state that enacted ordinances mandating mask-wearing amid a surge in COVID-19 cases, and in defiance of Kemp’s existing emergency order, under which cities cannot create more or fewer restrictions. On July 15, Kemp extended his order through July 31 with a new section specifically prohibiting local mask-wearing mandates. Instead, he encourages their use.

Bottoms quickly responded by saying that Atlanta would retain its mandate and enforce it.

“I am not concerned about the state suing the city,” Bottoms said in a July 16 press conference shortly before Kemp did exactly that. “As [poet] Audre Lorde said, ‘I am deliberate and afraid of nothing.’ I’ll put the city’s policies up against any of the state’s. I believe the mask policy is defensible and it stands.”

In tweets about the lawsuit, filed July 16, Kemp said the mask mandate was harmful to businesses, without specifying how. “We will fight to stop these reckless actions and put people over pandemic politics,” he wrote.

In Dunwoody, Mayor Lynn Deutsch said in a Facebook post after Kemp’s new order that her city’s mask-wearing ordinance was in response to business demands.

Dunwoody Mayor Lynn Deutsch.

“Our small businesses asked us to mandate masks,” she wrote. “Their employees are worried about being exposed to COVID-19. Without a mandate, some customers are pushing back and arguing about wearing a mask.”

“Last night, as expected, Governor Kemp issued his newest executive order.  Shockingly,  he doubled down on prohibiting local governments from mandating masks,” Deutsch continued in the post. “Some of you may read this post as political.  It isn’t.  It is coming from a place of utter helplessness.”

Jennifer Boettcher, a city of Dunwoody spokesperson, said the new mask-wearing ordinance will not be enforced. She noted the City Council also approved a resolution strongly encouraging mask-wearing.

Brookhaven Mayor John Ernst.

Brookhaven Mayor John Ernst spoke strongly in a written statement in response to questions about Kemp’s order and its effect on his city’s mask-wearing mandate. He said people should respect businesses that require mask-wearing and noting that the city can still “enforce disturbing the peace” in cases of mask disputes.

“To argue about the legalities of a face mask ordinance is counterproductive at this point.  Everyone knows that wearing face masks prevents the spread of COVID-19,” said Ernst. “… We all have to remember that we are neighbors and we will have to live with each other long after this pandemic abates. So let’s be nice to one another and wear the damn masks.”

Kemp vs. Atlanta

In Atlanta, the court battle over mask-wearing comes amid a larger election-year political war between Kemp, a Republican attempting to anchor support for President Trump, and Bottoms, a Democrat who has been touted as a possible vice presidential nominee.

Bottoms was an early critic of Kemp’s pandemic reopening plans, calling them unsafe. The two have differed strongly on policing and public safety tactics in the wake of the George Floyd and Rayshard Brooks protests, with Kemp recently declaring a crime emergency and sending the Georgia National Guard to various state-owned buildings in the city, including his own residence at the Governor’s Mansion in Buckhead.

The controversy reached a fever pitch when Bottoms recently announced she was rolling the city’s pandemic reopening back from a “phase two” to a “phase one,” even though in practice that changed very little. The change came along with the new mask mandate. Atlanta was not the first city to establish such a mandate, but the move came amid increasing politicizing of the safety measure, with the left calling it a public health responsibility and the right calling it a matter of personal freedom.

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms.

“My belief is that the city still has appropriate standing to mandate masks,” Bottoms said in her July 16 press conference.

Bottoms said the city was following data from scientists and healthcare professionals to decide what was best for Atlanta and its residents and businesses. “Wearing a mask is a simple, easy thing to do. We will continue to push and ask people to wear one despite the disagreement.”

Bottoms said she found it “quite interesting” that Kemp decided to void city and county mask mandates after Atlanta implemented one, since some other cities had them in place for weeks.

Bottoms also linked Kemp’s decision to Trump’s visit to the UPS hub at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport on July 15 to announce new transportation infrastructure projects. The city’s mask requirement also includes the airport and Trump was criticized for not wearing a mask during his visit. Bottoms told CNN that night that Trump broke city law.

In a series of tweets about the lawsuit, Kemp referred to economic impacts as the reason to crack down on Atlanta’s more intensive restrictions.

Gov. Brian Kemp.

“This lawsuit is on behalf of the Atlanta business owners and their hardworking employees who are struggling to survive during these difficult times,” he wrote. “These men and women are doing their very best to put food on the table for their families while local elected officials shutter businesses and undermine economic growth. Just like sending in the [National Guard] to protect those living in our capital city from crime and violence, I refuse to sit back and watch as disastrous policies threaten the lives and livelihoods of our citizens.”

The phased reopening plan that Bottoms is using has, all along, contained such restrictions as a ban on indoor occupancy of restaurants, which already is being widely ignored due to Kemp’s order. The rollback to “phase one” did not change any of those business restrictions. Bottoms emphasized in a tweet after the lawsuit’s filing that the reopening plan was voluntary. The mask mandate applied to people inside businesses, among other public locations.

The lawsuit, filed in Fulton County Superior Court, says Kemp has the power to “suspend municipal orders that are contradictory” to state laws or his executive orders.

The suit asks the court to block Bottoms from issuing any additional orders or press releases that mandate masks or other restrictions not allowed under Kemp’s latest executive order.

Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr, who also filed the lawsuit, tweeted: “The state of Georgia continues to urge citizens to wear masks. This lawsuit is about the rule of law.”

Tweeting in response to Kemp, Bottoms wrote: “3,104 Georgians have died and I and my family are amongst the 106K who have tested positive for COVID-19. Meanwhile, I have been sued by [the governor] for a mask mandate. A better use of taxpayer money would be to expand testing and contact tracing.”

–John Ruch and Collin Kelley

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.