Gov. Brian Kemp continues to be adamant about preventing cities and counties from requiring face masks and other measures to combat the spread of the COVID-19 virus. Kemp filed a lawsuit against Atlanta’s mask mandate and went so far as to seek an emergency injunction but withdrew it later as he negotiated with the city. This occurred even as the governor and the city were under a Fulton County Superior Court order for mediation on the issues.

Kemp spokesman Cody Hall said, ““The governor and the mayor continue to make progress negotiating directly on the issues addressed in the lawsuit.” Specifically, the legal action challenges Atlanta’s guidelines for coping with the pandemic, including those that encouraged new limits on restaurants and businesses. Kemp asked the court not only to suspend executive orders by Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms but to bar her from “issuing press releases or making statements to the press that she has the authority to impose more or less restrictive measures” than he does.

The city’s response argued that Kemp’s legal challenge is precluded by the sovereign immunity doctrine barring lawsuits against government officials. As for the idea of prohibiting the mayor from talking to reporters or issuing press releases, the city’s attorneys said such action would violate the Constitution.

They said, “speech on public policy issues is a core free speech right that is entitled to the ‘broadest protection’ under the First Amendment.” On that point, it appears that Kemp is off target. It’s one thing to seek the suspension of executive orders but trying to block free speech goes too far.

The governor, who has encouraged but not mandated the wearing of masks, insists that cities and counties may not create rules more or less restrictive than his own. His lawsuit takes aim at Atlanta’s guidelines for coping with the virus, including those encouraging restrictions on restaurants and other businesses. While not withdrawing the lawsuit, the governor’s office looked for “productive, good faith negotiations with city officials.” It remains to be seen if the negotiations and mediation will curtail the governor’s powers. Whatever the result, it may make little difference in how the state copes with the pandemic going forward.

Cobb’s cases at midweek exceeded 10,450 with 292 deaths, while Georgia topped 175,000 cases with more than 3,500 deaths. Nationally there were over 4.4 million cases and 152,000 deaths. The disturbing increase in the virus continues regardless of all efforts to slow or move the curve downward. Despite all the warnings about wearing face masks, many people seem to be going about their activities without the coverings. The result, as the Atlanta mayor has said, “is that COVID-19 is wreaking havoc on our cities, specifically Black and brown communities with higher death rates.”

President Donald Trump and his administration are on board with wearing face masks while pushing for reopening the economy. Trump donned a face mask in public earlier this month and called it “patriotic” to do so. White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow wore a mask at a press conference although it was held outside and he was not close to reporters. He said he had been emphasizing wearing the covering recently, asserting that the country wouldn’t “keep the economy open” or get children back to school without following guidelines for masks and social distancing. At the same time, Vice President Mike Pence, in a visit to Raleigh, continued the administration’s push encouraging more schools to reopen with in-person instruction. Trump has threatened to withhold federal funds from schools that do not permit students to attend classes in person.

In the final analysis, not much progress in combating the virus can be expected if people all across the country do not conform to the guidelines for wearing masks and practicing social distancing. That’s true regardless of the efforts of elected officials including the president, the governors and the mayors. It’s up to people to change things for the better, but the outlook as of now is not promising.

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