The Sandy Springs City Council on July 21 heard from its constituents, including some doctors, who wanted the city to mandate wearing face masks in the city limits just like Atlanta and some other Georgia cities. But instead, the councilmembers listened to their attorney, who told them they didn’t have any authority over public health issues.

Atlanta, Brookhaven and Dunwoody were among cities that this month enacted ordinances mandating mask-wearing amid a surge in COVID-19 cases, and in defiance of Gov. Brian Kemp’s existing emergency order, under which cities cannot create more or fewer restrictions. On July 15, Kemp extended his order through July 31 with a new section specifically prohibiting local mask-wearing mandates. Instead, he encourages their use.

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said her city would continue enforcing the ban, drawing a pending lawsuit from Kemp and the state. Brookhaven and Dunwoody backed down from enforcing their mask mandates, while DeKalb County on July 21 instituted one.

A motion by Sandy Springs Councilmember Andy Bauman during the July 21 City Council meeting to add support for the cities that did adopt a face mask mandate and pushed Gov. Brian Kemp to return control to local governments was rejected by the majority of the council.

The council did approve a resolution proposed by Mayor Rusty Paul that repeated an earlier call for city residents to wear masks. Paul said he purposely kept any controversy out of the resolution and stripped it down just to the basic message to urge residents to wear masks.

Paul said he understands the emotional imperative people feel who want the city to defy the governor’s order. The issue became personal as his 94-year-old mother is struggling with COVID-19. And one of his friends died after catching the coronavirus while caring for his brother, who had become infected and also died. The two brothers died within hours of each other, he said.

Councilmember Jody Reichel said anything short of a face mask mandate was not going far enough.

“We need to mandate mask wearing or at least try to get the governor to repeal his order to take away our local control,” she said.

She said she doubted the city would be taken to court over a mandate. But even if it happened, she said, the city could be saving lives in the meantime.

Bauman followed her comments with his amendment that asked the governor to do just that. But it failed on a 2-4 vote, with only Bauman and Reichel voting for it.

While councilmembers were debating the terms of the resolution, city residents were urging them in comments on Facebook at the meeting livestream to follow the examples set by Atlanta and Savannah to approve a face mask mandate.

“How many will die while you continue the conversation?” asked Donna Smith Aranson. “You have stated that mask wearing works to control the virus. Mask wearing is not emotional, it is science! I have shopped in Sandy Springs and have seen people in stores not wearing masks! The next death in Sandy Springs is on your shoulders.”.

Aranson said local residents weren’t making a political stance and weren’t asking the city to close stores and put people out of business. They just wanted to save neighbors and family members.

Shea Roberts, a Democratic state House candidate for District 52 in the North Buckhead/Sandy Springs area, joined in on Facebook to note that the Georgia Municipal Association submitted a brief in the Kemp versus Atlanta case, saying the governor doesn’t have authority to preempt a city’s home rule. That supports Sandy Springs mandating face masks, she said.

“You have legal coverage to do so, and this case may not be decided for a while due to appeals,” Roberts said in her Facebook post. “While the case is pending, you could be saving Sandy Springs lives and slowing the spread of COVID-19 so all of us could get back to work and school. Please do as 16 plus other mayors and cities have done and mandate masks now.”

Reichel said she read the more than 50 public comments submitted to the City Council, and the vast majority of them urged the city to adopt a face mask mandate.

But City Attorney Dan Lee shared his legal opinion with City Council that it does not have the authority to mandate wearing face masks.

If a judge in the lawsuit brought by the governor against Atlanta rules that cities have the authority to mandate face masks, Paul said, he’d be the first person to bring the issue back before the City Council.

He said the city has started a registry so that Sandy Springs businesses that require people to wear masks can let the city know so they can post it online. This will give residents a resource to use to find which businesses in the community are requiring face masks and then shop there if it makes them feel safer.

Councilmember John Paulson said he doesn’t feel comfortable passing a mandate that the police department would have to enforce. He didn’t want to be put in the situation of picking and choosing what health laws the city would follow and which they would not.

“Finally, I don’t believe that this council should pass an ordinance in defiance of a lawful order, whether you like the governor or not,” Paulson said.

Councilmember Steve Soteres agreed with Paulson’s points.

“I’m not a real big fan of legislating intelligence either,” he said. “People need to wear masks. It’s the smart thing to do.”

Councilmember Tibby DeJulio asked that the city expand its efforts in providing face masks to residents who don’t have access to a mask or can’t afford one.

Fire Chief Keith Sanders confirmed that 10,000 face masks had been delivered to the Community Assistance Center, a nonprofit that serves people at risk of homelessness and hunger. He said the CAC still has 5,000 masks that it can distribute.

DeJulio suggested that the Sandy Springs Solidarity Food Pantry be supplied with face masks to make sure the people struggling with the pandemic’s economic effects who they serve have access to masks. Sanders promised to do that.

Bob Pepalis

Bob Pepalis covers Sandy Springs for Reporter Newspapers.