Gov. Brian Kemp has extended his pandemic emergency order through Aug. 31 and, in a major policy shift, allowed cities and counties to mandate mask-wearing in public and in consenting businesses under certain conditions.

Atlanta, Brookhaven and Dunwoody are among Georgia cities that responded to a surge in COVID-19 cases by instituting mask-wearing mandates that Kemp last month claimed were illegal contradictions of his emergency orders due to exceeding state restrictions. Kemp’s orders have only “strongly encouraged” mask-wearing. Kemp last month unsuccessfully sued Atlanta over its mask-mandate in a lawsuit that first went to mediation and is now being withdrawn.

Kemp announced the extension of the emergency order on Aug. 15. To read the full order, click here.

“This order also protects Georgia businesses from government overreach by restricting the application and enforcement of local masking requirements to public property,” he said in a press release. “While I support local control, it must be properly balanced with property rights and personal freedoms.”

The new mask-wearing language in the order has several elements. Local governments can now require mask-wearing on their own property at any time. Mask-wearing mandates in other public places or private businesses can only be applied when the state of COVID-19 cases reaches a “threshold requirement.” That threshold is, on the county level, 100 or more confirmed cases per 100,000 people over a 14-day period.

The “Local Option Face Covering Requirement,” as Kemp’s order dubs it, can mandate mask-wearing when people cannot socially distance from other people they do not live with. Any government that chooses to enact such an ordinance must make an effort to provide free masks to the public.

Enforcement comes with many restrictions and exemptions. Any such mask-wearing mandate can be enforceable only on individuals, not businesses or business owners. The penalty cannot be higher than $50 per offense and cannot include imprisonment, and authorities must give a warning first.

Mask-wearing mandates can be enforced on private property only where the owner or occupant gives consent to the enforcement. Businesses may be required to post notices saying whether they consent. The mandates cannot be enforced on residential property or in polling places.

Any mask-wearing mandate must include certain exemptions for individuals, including when they are eating or drinking; those who have difficulty using a mask without assistance; those who have a “bona fide religious objection” to wearing a mask or face-covering; and those who have a “bona fide medical reason” not to wear a mask.

Besides the mask-wearing language, the order largely just extends the prior pandemic restrictions and guidelines, people practice social distancing and that people at higher risk of COVID-19 complications continue to shelter in place.

The order continues to prohibit gatherings of more than 50 people if a distance of at least 6 feet between all participants cannot be maintained. And its specific rules for sanitation and distancing in specific businesses and institutes, like restaurants and schools, remain in effect.

John Ruch

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