Georgia's Gov. Brian Kemp has stopped short of mandating the use of face masks, prompting pushback from local officials within the state.
In a Thursday morning news conference, Kemp urged Georgians to wear masks for four weeks but says he will not make the recommendation an order. A day earlier, he issued an executive order barring cities from ordering their own mask requirements.
LaGrange, Ga., Mayor Jim Thornton says he's "disappointed" by the governor's move.
"I realize Gov. Kemp has a very difficult job. Georgia is a big and diverse state," he tells NPR's Steve Inskeep. "So, I realize one size doesn't fit all. But I wish that Gov. Kemp would set some minimum statewide standards but then allow our individual cities to make individual decisions that they need to do for themselves."
Public health experts say wearing a mask slows the spread of the coronavirus. Kemp doesn't deny the science, but Thornton says that, based on that public health guidance, he would implement a mask mandate for his city of some 30,000 people if Kemp would permit such an order.
"I think at this point, the medical science is very clear and the medical science supports masks," he says.
"If you listen to the doctors at the CDC, or if you talk to primary care physicians here ... these are the folks who are treating the sick and the dying here on the ground. They're seeing how their patients were exposed and potentially exposed others. And this is what they're recommending," he says. "So, I'm wearing a mask in public. All of my city council members are wearing masks in public, and I think everyone should."
At the same time, the mayor says he wouldn't go so far as to defy Kemp issuing a mask order as Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms has done.
"I'm a little bit reluctant to go there and to defy what is the governor's clear legal mandate, until we have an opportunity for the courts to evaluate it," he says.
Instead, he says he's lobbying the governor for more flexibility when it comes to issuing local orders "to respond to the peculiar circumstances" across various states.
Thornton says following mask-wearing recommendations has been inconsistent in Georgia, but has become more common when the number of COVID-19 cases increase.
"We have been a little bit of a roller coaster ride locally. For the first three months, our cases in LaGrange were very low and then we had a tremendous spike the second week or so of June," he said. "When that happened, people started wearing masks. Although it's not universal, it is becoming very common."
Avery Keatley and Matt Kwong produced and edited the audio for this interview.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Who gets to say if you should wear a mask in public? Public health experts say the science is ever more clear - wearing a mask slows the spread of coronavirus. Georgia is fighting over whether the government should order mask use. Many Georgia cities, including Atlanta, want to and have issued such orders. But Governor Brian Kemp has forbidden them and gone to court to stop them. He would rather just recommend masks. Jim Thornton joins us next. He's the mayor of LaGrange, Ga. Good morning, sir.
JIM THORNTON: Good morning, Steve.
INSKEEP: What do you make of the governor's move?
THORNTON: Well, Steve, I'm disappointed. I realize Governor Kemp has a very difficult job. Georgia is a big and diverse state. We have big cities like Atlanta, we have small rural counties in south Georgia and everything in between, like a small city like LaGrange, population 30,000. So I realize one size doesn't fit all. But I wish that Governor Kemp would set some minimum statewide standards but then allow our individual cities to make individual decisions that they need to do for themselves.
INSKEEP: Would you be ordering mask use if the governor would allow you?
THORNTON: So I actually would. And I'll tell you, Steve. I have been on the fence about that like a lot of people because, you know, I think early on, there was some confusion. There was some confusing data and - press put out about it. And obviously, politics got involved in it. And as you know, it's taken like wildfire on social media.
THORNTON: But I think at this point, the medical science is very clear. And the medical science supports masks. That's true if you listen to the doctors at the CDC or if you talk to primary care physicians here in LaGrange, Ga., which I've done. I've talked to our local physicians. I've talked to my personal physician. And they all want people to wear masks.
These are the folks who are treating the sick and the dying here on the ground. And they're seeing how this spreads. They're seeing how their patients were exposed and potentially exposed others. And this is what they're recommending. So I'm wearing a mask in public. All of my city council members are wearing masks in public. And I think everyone should.
INSKEEP: Do you support Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms of Atlanta who has not only said that she wishes she could order a mandate but has defied the governor and ordered one, if I'm not mistaken?
THORNTON: Well, so I'll be honest with you, I'm a little bit reluctant to go there and to defy what is the governor's clear legal mandate until we have an opportunity for the courts to evaluate it. You know, it's a different approach. I would say that we have taken a more conservative approach in LaGrange to not do an outright defiance. Instead, I've been trying to lobby together. Listen; I'm a Republican. I have supported Governor Kemp. And I've been trying to work with the governor's office to let them see that one size doesn't fit all and that we need the flexibility here in LaGrange, just like other cities across the state do, to respond to the peculiar circumstances that we're dealing with. Georgia has always...
INSKEEP: Now, to be fair to the governor, as I know you want to be, Governor Kemp has not, as I understand it, denied the science. He said he recommends masks. He just doesn't want to order masks at this time. When you look around LaGrange or other places, are lots of people following the recommendation and wearing masks?
THORNTON: So I will tell you that it is not universal. We have been a little bit of a rollercoaster ride locally. For the first three months, our cases in LaGrange were very low. And then we had a tremendous spike the second week or so of June. We actually made the New York Times Top 10 list because our rate of growth accelerated fast. When that happened, people started wearing masks. Although it's not universal, I would tell you that it is very - it's becoming very common. As I've had a local nurse say to me, until we have a vaccine for COVID, the closest thing we have to a vaccine is a face mask.
INSKEEP: Mayor Thornton, thanks for your insights, really appreciate it.
THORNTON: Thank you, Steve.
INSKEEP: And Georgia's Governor Kemp has held a news conference this morning urging all people in his state to wear masks for four weeks. But that remains a recommendation. He says he will not make it an order, nor will he allow cities to do so. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.