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ACC Commission Approves Face Mask Requirement in Public Places

Credit: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

The Athens-Clarke County Commission unanimously approved an emergency ordinance requiring people to wear face coverings while inside public places, such as businesses.

“We’re in a critical situation,” said Commissioner Melissa Link. “There’s no room to hope that people will just do the right thing.”

In addition, the ordinance passed Tuesday night requires employees at grocery stores, pharmacies, other retail stores, salons and restaurants are required to wear face coverings while interacting with the public.

Religious establishments are exempt, although wearing face coverings in churches and other places of worship is “highly recommended.” People who can’t safely wear a mask due to age, an underlying health condition or an inability to remove the mask are also exempt, as are children under 11 years old. Face coverings would not be required in cars, outdoors when a six-foot distance can be maintained, while alone or with other household members, or while eating, drinking or smoking.

While the ordinance says that “every effort shall be made to bring an individual into voluntary compliance,” it sets a fine of up to $25 for the first offense, $50 for the second and $100 for further offenses. The fines are civil. not criminal, and the ordinance forbids police from arresting anyone who violates it. County officials are putting together plans to distribute masks to people who don’t have one, Manager Blaine Williams said.

“The intent of this ordinance is not to be punitive,” Commissioner Tim Denson said. “The intent of this ordinance is to make sure that people are wearing masks, because we can’t ignore this anymore.”

But Link said that the commission may have to raise the fines if people aren’t complying. The fine in Savannah is $500.

“I’d suggest we may have to revisit those fines come football season, when we have a lot of outsiders coming into our community,” she said. “I believe Savannah has a high fine because they are very much a tourist destination.”

Athens is the third city in Georgia to enact a face-mask requirement, following Savannah and East Point. Gov. Brian Kemp’s emergency orders during the COVID-19 pandemic encourage but don’t require mask-wearing, and prohibit local governments from enacting their own regulations. Kemp said during a stop in Brunswick last week that his legal team is looking into Savannah’s action.

“The mayor [Van Johnson] and I agree on the policy,” Kemp said. “You should be wearing a mask, and that’s what I encourage people to do.”

Mayor Pro Tem Russell Edwards—presiding over the meeting in place of Mayor Kelly Girtz—and other commissioners criticized Kemp’s handling of the pandemic, saying that he was the last governor to order residents to shelter in place and the first to lift the order. ACC approved a shelter-in-place ordinance in mid-March, but Kemp later overruled it. Other cities may soon follow Athens’ lead.

“I proudly proclaim often that we are probably the most responsible municipal government, unified government, on the East Coast,” Edwards said. He called the ordinance a “vital public safety measure to help protect our community from the scourge of coronavirus.”

ACC’s ordinance includes legal justifications for the local government’s ability to mandate face coverings.

Wearing cloth face coverings slows the spread of coronavirus—especially for people who are infected but asymptomatic—by blocking airborne droplets that contain the virus, according to the CDC.

“These masks don’t necessarily protect you,” Denson said. “They protect all your neighbors, all the people around you in the Athens-Clarke County community, and that of course slows down all the people who are going to our hospitals that have such limited capacity.”

Piedmont Athens Regional and St. Mary’s currently have a combined 35 COVID-19 patients, with nine in intensive care, Edwards said.

Confirmed COVID-19 cases have been spiking in Clarke County, with nearly 300 positive tests in the past week, bringing the total to 775 as of Tuesday afternoon. Statewide, cases have more than doubled to over 100,000 since the commission passed a resolution urging people to wear masks on May 29, Denson said. Voluntary measures didn’t work—mask-wearing “has leveled off. It’s dropping,” Link said. “It feels almost like normal life.”

Unless capacity limits at bars are enforced, commissioners said they fear the pandemic will worsen once UGA classes resume. There’s also the threat that coronavirus “will return with a fury in conjunction with flu season,” Williams said.

“That’s where this virus is spreading,” Link said, referring to bars. “People are unmasked. They’re talking loudly. They’ve had a few drinks. They’re very close. They’re singing and laughing, and that’s precisely how the virus is spreading.

“And those folks, younger people, they may not be getting the symptoms, but they’re going home to see their parents and grandparents. Pretty soon they’re going to be sitting in classrooms with professors and walking around buildings with working-class folks in our community that are in very high-risk populations.”

Commissioners also praised the University System of Georgia for reversing course Monday and requiring masks when indoors on college campuses, with Denson calling the decision a “game-changer.” Because UGA is state property, ACC ordinances don’t apply there.

Commissioners Mariah Parker and Patrick Davenport addressed those who view wearing a mask as unnecessary or a violation of their rights, saying that the health and lives of those who are most susceptible to COVID-19 are more important.

“These are real peoples’ lives that are affected,” said Parker, whose mother is immunosuppressed. “It may seem like it’s an inconvenience, but it’s such a small one to keep someone’s mother or brother or friend alive.”