County leaders frustrated by governor limiting local mask orders

Published 7:00 am Saturday, July 18, 2020

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By Hunter Riggall

LaGrange Mayor Jim Thornton went on national radio Friday morning to express his discontent over Gov. Brian Kemp’s latest executive order.

Speaking on NPR’s “Morning Edition,” Thornton said he was disappointed in Gov. Brian Kemp’sexecutive order, signed Wednesday, that explicitly states that cities and counties cannot mandate face mask-wearing.

“I realize one size doesn’t fit all, but I wish that Gov. Kemp would set some minimum statewide standards, but then allow our individual cities to make individual decisions that they need to do for themselves,” Thornton said on the show.

He isn’t alone. All three mayors in Troup County, along with the chairman of the county commission, said on Friday that the governor should have left the decision to local governments.

Hogansville Mayor Bill Stankiewicz put it more bluntly.

“The governor’s flat out wrong,” Stankiewicz said.

While admitting he isn’t a lawyer, Stankiewicz said, “We have the right to govern anything under the blue skies of our city.”

Thornton told The LaGrange Daily News he has spoken with one of Kemp’s staffers to lobby against the order. As first vice president of the Georgia Mayors Association, he has also communicated with other mayors around the state to organize opposition to the order.

The mayor said he supports home rule, and that in recent days, he was persuaded by local physicians that a mask order for the city was necessary.

“I completely share the governor’s goal of getting the economy going and getting business going again,” Thornton said.

However, he added that a quick way to do that would be to bring the latest surge under control by mandating masks.

If it weren’t for Kemp’s new order, the city council would have likely been discussing a mask mandate at a meeting in the near future, Thornton confirmed.

As of July 17, Troup County has 1,841 cases of COVID-19, a rate of 2,615 cases per 100,000 people. Forty-three people have died in Troup County, a rate of 62.5 per 100,000 people.

Troup County’s case rate and death rate are both more than double that of large urban counties such as Fulton (Atlanta), Chatham (Savannah), Clarke (Athens) and Richmond (Augusta), all of which had mandated mask-wearing in public.

West Point Mayor Steve Tramell still thinks any mask mandate would be an “enforcement nightmare” for local law enforcement but still wishes Kemp had ordered a statewide mask mandate.

“If [COVID-19] continues to worsen, [Kemp’s] going to have to relent,” Tramell said.

He said it will be interesting to see what happens across the river in Alabama, where Gov. Kay Ivey has issued a mask order. 

Troup County Commission Chairman Patrick Crews, who said he was “very disappointed” in the executive order, worries it will interfere with the county’s requirement to wear masks at the courthouse and government center.

Crews is seeking clarification from the governor’s office on that. Essential government functions would grind to a halt if an outbreak were to occur in those facilities, Crews said.

“It would be detrimental to business,” he said.

Crews isn’t sure how the commission would have voted on a mask mandate, but he would have preferred that Kemp leave that decision to local governments.

“This strikes at the core question — who is in control of their local communities?” Crews said. “And clearly the governor thinks he is.”

Thornton, Tramell, Stankiewicz and Crews teamed up on Friday to cut a #MaskTroupCounty video that encourages mask wearing.