Mask-wearing mandates are returning to local cities in the wake of Gov. Brian Kemp backing down on the issue last week. Sandy Springs is creating a mask mandate, Brookhaven will enforce an existing one, and Dunwoody may reconsider one.

Atlanta, Brookhaven and Dunwoody were among Georgia cities that responded to a surge in COVID-19 cases by instituting mask-wearing mandates that Kemp last month claimed were illegal contradictions of his emergency orders due to exceeding state restrictions. Kemp only wanted to “strongly encourage” mask-wearing.

After Kemp’s protests, Brookhaven and Dunwoody backed off enforcement of their new mandates, but Atlanta said it would defy the governor. Kemp took the city of Atlanta to court over its mask mandate and pandemic reopening guidelines. But he recently announced the withdrawal of that lawsuit and on Aug. 15 announced a new emergency order that allows cities and counties to mandate mask-wearing in public and in consenting businesses under certain conditions and with limitations on penalties. That order extends through Aug. 31.

Brookhaven Mayor John Ernst, through a city spokesperson, emphasized that his city’s mask mandate had not been repealed and would now be enforced.

“Brookhaven’s mask ordinance remains and had always been on the books as approved by the City Council even with the governor’s confusion,” Ernst said. “As always, if we get a complaint it will be investigated and enforced as needed.”

Brookhaven’s mandate comes with a possible $500 penalty — more than the $50 Kemp’s order allows — so it remains to be seen how enforcement would work. However, city officials previously said that compliance rather than punishment is the goal.

In Dunwoody, the legal status of the mask mandate previously approved by the City Council was not immediately clear. However, city spokesperson Jennifer Boettcher said, a special called City Council meeting was scheduled for Aug. 19 and its agenda was still pending. “The mask ordinance may be on it,” she said.

Dunwoody’s original ordinance also included possible penalties higher than Kemp’s order allows, up to a $1,000 fine and six months in jail.

Boettcher noted that the city continues to require mask-wearing in City Hall, Municipal Court and all other city-owned buildings.

Sandy Springs was a relative latecomer to the mask mandate debate, with the City Council on July 21 deciding not to institute one in the wake of Kemp’s order. That decision came over the protests of many residents who wanted a mandate.

Things may change fast, however. Mayor Rusty Paul said in an Aug. 14 Facebook post, before Kemp had even finalized his executive order, that the city would now consider a mask mandate.

“With the governor’s new executive order allowing local mask mandates, I will begin the process of drafting an order applying to Sandy Springs that complies with this new guidance,” he wrote.

DeKalb County government in July also approved a mask-wearing mandate, which it instituted in defiance of Kemp’s original order. That mandate includes a possible $250 fine and has a broad “conscientious objector” exemption.

John Ruch

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.