Brookhaven Mayor John Ernst has been a prominent advocate of mask-wearing mandates as a public health necessity against the COVID-19 pandemic. But Ernst is sometimes going maskless himself at a private club’s Wiffle ball games, according to a fellow player who accuses the mayor of hypocrisy.

Stephen Stern snapped a photo during a Sept. 15 game at the Brittany Club on Breton Circle near Silver Lake showing Ernst and two other players chatting, apparently less than 6 feet apart. They and the other seven people in the photo appear not to be wearing masks. Stern said he doesn’t wear a mask himself, believing coronavirus concerns to be “overblown,” but that the mayor should practice what he preaches.

Brookhaven Mayor John Ernst, fourth from the left, talks to people at a Wiffle ball game at the Brittany Club on Sept. 15. (Stephen Stern)

“He will put out executive orders about masks, but this is not the first time he hasn’t worn a mask at this Wiffle ball event,” Stern said. “He tells people one thing in order to get attention, and it’s been like this since the beginning.”

Ernst said he was wearing a mask during the game and only briefly removed it to take a sip of his drink. Ernst said the mask was “dangling from my opposite ear” and not visible in the photo. He also noted that, as a private organization, the club is exempt from the city mask mandate.

“Despite being at an establishment that has legally opted out of the mask requirement, I wore my mask outside during and after playing in a recreational Wiffle ball game that raises money for charity,” Ernst said in an email.

The city has a mask mandate that requires people to wear masks in public places and in consenting businesses where they cannot social distance. The mandate exempts wearing masks while eating and drinking, and private businesses can opt out of the mandate. The Brittany Club does not opt into the mandate, Ernst said. The club did not respond to requests for comment.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends wearing a mask anytime a person is around people who aren’t in their household, especially when social distancing is difficult to maintain.

Stern acknowledged that Ernst wore a mask for part of the event, but said the mayor had removed it for five to 10 minutes by the time he took the photo. Stern said Ernst attended previous games maskless and began wearing a mask only after Stern complained in a comment on a city’s Facebook post in June, which is when the Wiffle ball games started.

“He started wearing a mask again after that but has gotten more free with not wearing one the more I have seen him,” Stern said.

Stern said that, as the photo indicated, other players don’t wear masks, either.

Ernst was defended by resident Danielle Blair, who called the Reporter shortly after the mayor confirmed he was in the photo. Blair said “a lot” of players wear masks, but not everyone because it’s an outdoor sport and people stay 6 feet apart. She said Ernst wears a mask every time she has seen him.

“Anytime he’s been there, he’s had on a mask,” said Blair. “He doesn’t come to too many. If there’s too many people, he doesn’t come. Generally, in those games we do social distancing, so there’s not more than the number of people who are allowed to be together.”

Ernst signed an executive order on July 9 for a citywide mask mandate, despite Gov. Brian Kemp’s previous order that did not allow cities to have those mandates. During a lawsuit between the city of Atlanta and Kemp regarding local mask mandates, Ernst said the city could “enforce disturbing the peace” in cases of mask disputes. 

“We all have to remember that we are neighbors and we will have to live with each other long after this pandemic abates. So let’s be nice to one another and wear the damn masks,” Ernst said in a written statement in July.

Once Kemp did allow the mandate, the Brookhaven City Council approved a new ordinance with less strict punishments that complied with the state guidelines on Aug. 26.

At the beginning of the March shutdowns due to the pandemic, Ernst claimed the city was the first in the state to enact a shutdown of businesses and city facilities.

Brookhaven was the first city known to have a city employee test positive for COVID-19, and City Hall also has a mask mandate.

In late May, Ernst and the council had a two-hour discussion about how to safely allow organized sports during the pandemic, specifically looking at Murphey Candler Baseball youth leagues. The council hesitated about allowing outside sports to start back because of safety concerns but eventually allowed them.

Ernst has said since that the leagues have done a great job in enforcing social distancing and mask wearing for spectators and coaches. Players on the field do not have to wear masks.