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Georgia governor’s office sues to block Atlanta mask mandate after banning mask mandates statewide

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, right, greets President Donald Trump as he visits Georgia to talk about an infrastructure overhaul at the UPS Hapeville hub at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta on Wednesday, July 15, 2020. (Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp’s administration went to court Thursday seeking to block Atlanta from enacting coronavirus restrictions and requiring residents to wear masks, setting up a legal showdown between the state and local governments over efforts to contain the disease.

The state filed a lawsuit challenging Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’ July 10 decision to revert to “phase one” guidelines that push restaurants to close dining rooms and urge residents to leave home only for essential trips. It also casts the city’s new mask requirements as “void and unenforceable.”

“This lawsuit is on behalf of the Atlanta business owners and their hardworking employees who are struggling to survive during these difficult times,” Kemp said in a statement. “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.”

The legal complaint, filed in Fulton County Superior Court, came one day after Kemp signed a statewide order that explicitly bans cities and counties from enforcing mask mandates. Atlanta and a dozen other cities have adopted such requirements, defying an order from Kemp that encourages but not mandates them.

Asked earlier Thursday about the possibility of a legal battle with the state, Bottoms said during a virtual town hall that she was “not concerned about that at all.”

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“I love to quote Audre Lorde,” she said of the late feminist and poet. “She says, ‘I am deliberate and afraid of nothing.’ I am not afraid of the city being sued and I will put our policies up against anyone’s, any day of the week.”

After the lawsuit was filed, Bottoms said that more than 3,100 Georgians have died from the coronavirus and roughly 106,000 have tested positive for the disease — including she, her husband and one of her children.

“A better use of taxpayer money would be to expand testing and contact tracing. If being sued by the state is what it takes to save lives in Atlanta, then we will see them in court.”

She added on social media: “Reading is fundamental. @GovKemp is suing Atlanta over RECOMMENDED guidelines.”

The lawsuit, which names Bottoms and the City Council as defendants, asserts that Kemp has the power to “suspend municipal orders that are contradictory” to state laws or his executive actions.

And it claims Bottoms “tied the hands” of police by instructing them to ignore his orders, which include restrictions on gatherings of more than 50 people and safety guidelines for restaurants and other businesses.

It asks a judge to block Bottoms from issuing any orders or news releases that impose a mask mandate or enact other restrictions that go beyond the state’s approach.

“Mayor Bottoms cannot continue to knowingly enter orders and issue press releases which are unenforceable and void that only serve to confuse the public during a time when the state is in a public health emergency,” the complaint said.

Bottoms, a potential running-mate for presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, announced the “phase one” guidelines after a week of escalating tension with Kemp.

She criticized his decision to order 1,000 Georgia National Guard troops to Atlanta to protect state buildings, and he panned her order to require masks within the city limits.

At least one Atlanta business announced plans to shut down following the mayor’s call for new economic restrictions. Home Grown, a popular restaurant near downtown, said it would temporarily close because of the new restrictions.

About two dozen states have mandated the use of masks, including Texas and West Virginia. Alabama joined the group Wednesday, with Gov. Kay Ivey saying it’s essential to “slow the spread and turn these trends in a different direction.”

Georgia has experienced a steady rise in coronavirus infections since June, and the hospitalization rate has climbed just as sharply. Data released Wednesday show roughly 84% of the state’s intensive care units are in use, and the nearly 2,800 people now hospitalized statewide with the illness is the highest on record.

Attorney General Chris Carr, also a plaintiff in the lawsuit, said the litigation is “about the rule of law” and that the state continues to urge Georgians to wear masks.

“The Constitution gives Governor Kemp chief executive power for the State of Georgia, including during a public health state of emergency,” said Carr. “The City of Atlanta cannot continue to knowingly enter orders that are unenforceable and void.”

In a statement, Kemp tied the lawsuit to his decision last week to deploy troops to the streets of Atlanta after a weekend of violence that included the ransacking of the headquarters of the Georgia State Patrol.

“Just like sending in the Georgia 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,” he said. “We will fight to stop these reckless actions and put people over pandemic politics.”

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© 2020 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.