DeKalb County has joined Atlanta in defying Gov. Brian Kemp’s executive order that no county or municipality can require people to wear face masks.
The DeKalb County Board of Commissioners passed a mask ordinance that requires all residents over 8 years old to wear masks in public spaces, despite Kemp’s order that suspends local ordinances that mandate masks and his lawsuit against Atlanta for continuing its mandate. The DeKalb ordinance also includes a “conscientious objector” clause that potentially voids the entire mandate, Commissioner Nancy Jester said.
County commissioners passed amendments to the original mask mandate ordinance on July 21 in a 6-1 vote, which now include the conscientious objector clause and changes the penalties for people who violate the mask mandate.
People who violate the mandate for the first time will get a written warning. The second violation will require the person to take a virtual or in-person COVID-19 prevention class to better understand the public health crisis and how to mitigate it. If they do not attend the class, they will receive a $250 fine, according to the ordinance.
The addition of the COVID-19 prevention class amends the original ordinance, which previously stated that a second violation would cause a penalty of up to a $250 fine.
The conscientious objector exception states that people who file a written affidavit to the court that states they object to wearing masks for health, religious or ethical reasons will not face any penalties. A person only has to file an affidavit after they receive a citation for the ordinance.
No one will be arrested for violating the ordinance, and “authorized county employees” will enforce the mandate, according to the ordinance.
Jester, whose district includes Dunwoody, said she “emphatically” supports wearing masks in public, but she thinks the prevention class requirement is too vague and the conscientious objector exemption potentially negates the entire ordinance.
The amended ordinance will be effective July 25 and will remain in effect unless repealed or modified. The commission will review the ordinance when the county returns to a Level 1 warning rating by the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control, according to the ordinance.
The ordinance exempts masks when people are doing socially distant, outdoor, physical activity; momentarily when masks prohibit communication; for those with specific health conditions; when eating and drinking; when law enforcement needs to verify a person’s identity; if a health professional does not advise them for employees because of heat or safety reasons; and if the mask causes a greater mental or physical health safety risk.
The county is also encouraging businesses to require masks inside their establishments and plans to distribute 20,000 masks to small businesses that agree to implement a “No Mask, No Service” policy, according to the release.
“We must do everything within our authority to stop the spread of this deadly virus,” said DeKalb CEO Michael Thurmond, who proposed the amendments, in the press release.
Thurmond said the amended ordinance is “consistent” with Kemp’s executive order, according to the release.
The ordinance states the county can “enact ordinances, rules and regulations that are reasonably necessary to protect the health, safety and welfare of its citizens” because of the home rule powers in the Georgia Constitution.
The Georgia Constitution gives counties and municipalities the authority to enact “clearly reasonable ordinances, resolutions or regulations” relating to the affairs of the locality as long as it does not violate state laws or the Constitution.
Jester voted against both the original and amended ordinance, though both these ordinances passed.
“I don’t think it’s consistent with the governor’s order,” Jester said in an email.
Jester said the inclusion of a fine for violating the ordinance will “disproportionately impact poorer and minority communities” and has concerns for how the county will enforce it.
The original DeKalb County mask requirement ordinance passed the commission on July 14, one day before Kemp clarified in an executive order that he would not allow localities to have mask requirements because they are more restrictive than his orders.
Atlanta, Dunwoody, Brookhaven and other cities across the state had their own mask mandate ordinances before the clarification. While Dunwoody and Brookhaven have since backed down from their city-wide mandates, Atlanta will still enforce its mandate, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said in a July 16 press conference.
Kemp, who said the mask mandate was harmful to businesses in tweets, is taking Bottoms to court because of her defiance of his executive order.