Troup County, city leaders encourage mask-wearing in public but hesitant to mandate

Published 11:30 am Saturday, July 11, 2020

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By: Hunter Riggall 

In recent weeks, some of Georgia’s largest cities — Atlanta, East Point, Savannah, Athens — have instituted ordinances requiring people to wear masks in public to slow rising case numbers of COVID-19. Troup County and its three cities aren’t likely to join them, at least for now.

In interviews, local leaders across the county expressed hesitation about mandating that citizens wear masks. Chief among their concerns are authority and enforceability.

Local orders in other cities seem to conflict with Gov. Brian Kemp’s executive order that encourages, but does not require, wearing a mask in public. So far, Kemp has refrained from legal challenges that might overturn local orders.

As of July 9, states that have issued some sort of statewide mask mandate include California, Illinois, Kansas, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, New York, North Carolina, Texas and Virginia, among others.

LaGrange Mayor Jim Thornton acknowledged that other cities seem to have started a trend that Kemp has not intervened to stop. Thornton said the city is looking at options and monitoring developments around the state. He also reiterated the city’s recommendations to wash hands, avoid crowds, sanitize frequently and wear masks, as well as the city’s mask distribution efforts.

District 2 LaGrange Councilman Nathan Gaskin supports the LaGrange City Council passing a resolution strongly encouraging citizens to wear masks. He’s especially concerned about children returning to schools in August, and the potential for schools to become a venue for spreading the virus. If students end up having to wear masks, it’s incumbent upon adults to set the example in the community, he said.

Still, the idea of enforcing an ordinance gives Gaskin pause. Thornton isn’t sure LaGrange has the police manpower to enforce such a rule, and Gaskin doesn’t want anyone having to answer to police about masks.

“I’m looking for the men and women of my community to soldier up and be the example that our children need us to be,” Gaskin said of LaGrange residents.

District 1 LaGrange Councilman Mark Mitchell said he encourages wearing a mask, calling it a “no brainer,” but declined to say if he would support any further action by the city. If a resolution or mandate were presented, he would listen to the people of his district, he said. Mitchell said his constituents currently have mixed feelings about such action. He also expressed doubt that the city had the authority to mandate mask wearing, citing Kemp’s order.

Troup County has mandated that visitors to the government center must wear a mask inside the building. Patrick Crews, Chair of the County Commission, said even that provoked an angry message from someone.

“If I thought that people would truly do that and take it seriously, I probably would [move forward with a mandate]. But I have learned through this process that the American people value their independence and their personal freedoms,” Crews said.

Crews, who manages an assisted living center, called for people to follow guidelines that slow the spread of the virus, people have a collective responsibility to protect seniors and others with elevated risk.

Hogansville City Manager Jonathan Lynn plans to issue a mandate Saturday requiring people to wear masks at City Hall, Hogansville Mayor Bill Stankiewicz said. Beyond that, Stankiewicz said Troup County and its three mayors should act “in concert,” issuing complementary mandates at the same time, if they decide to do so.

“I think the governor is mistaken,” Stankiewicz said, calling for Kemp to mandate masks statewide. At minimum, Kemp shouldn’t interfere with local orders, Stankiewicz added.

West Point Mayor Steve Tramell’s business, has manufactured and donated thousands of masks, and the mayor said he’s supported wearing them since the beginning.

“Right now, there’s just too many people that, for whatever reason, don’t do it. I feel silly when I wear it sometimes, but I’d rather be silly than sick,” Tramell said.

Tramell’s not opposed to mask mandates but wants to wait and see what Kemp’s next step is. A local order would have no teeth, he said, due to the lack of a statewide order.

“It’s more for show than anything else in my opinion,” Tramell said of local mandates.

One message was consistent among local officials: masks are integral to slowing the spread of COVID-19, and people should wear them.