On Wednesday, the United States reported over 1,000 COVID-19 deaths for the first time since June 9 as the spiking cases across the South reversed the trend generated when numerous states issued stay-at-home orders in April and May. With a better understanding of how the disease is spread, it’s become clear that use of face coverings is critical to reducing the rate of transmission. Short of a new, even broader stay-at-home order, masks are the most effective action the nation can take to break the back of the pandemic. So naturally masks have become a political point, with right-wing media and Republican politicians doing everything they can to send not just mixed messages, but spread the idea that wearing a mask is somehow, in an undefined way, a threat to “freedom.”
Even so, Republican governors pinned between overcrowded hospitals, rising cases, and having to reverse themselves on statewide lockdowns have been revising their mask positions. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott went from preventing local governments from issuing mask orders to issuing his own statewide requirement, complete with fines for those who refuse. Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey didn’t issue a statewide order, but he did reverse himself and allow cities and counties to issue local orders. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis … did nothing, because he’s Ron DeSantis, and that’s just how he rolls. But it’s Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp who is really outstanding in his field in the worst possible way. Because on Wednesday, Kemp issued a new executive order to block mask requirements at every level.
Honestly, it’s not clear that Kemp’s previous executive order allowed local governments to issue any sort of mask mandate. As a service to the reader—and an alternative to a crossword puzzle—here’s how the restrictions were described under the previous executive order:
The best reading of that appears to be that cities and counties were free to do anything they wanted as long as what they wanted was exactly what Kemp had already ordered. In other words, no one could make any efforts to fight COVID-19 on a local level unless they were in Kemp’s statewide order. But in case that paragraph left enough confusion for some locality to just issue a mask mandate anyway, Kemp’s new order makes it absolutely explicit by adding a whole paragraph dedicated to masks and how no one, at any level, can require a Georgian to cover his or her face until Brian Kemp says so. So there.
If it seems like Kemp is needlessly putting the lives of millions of people at risk just out of the generic Trump-era Republican sense that anything helpful must be fought, that’s not the case. A number of Georgia localities had already issued mask mandates, and Kemp had just let things slide … until this week.
What changed was certainly not an improvement in the local situation. Georgia made its way to the #4 slot on the chart of states with the most new cases on Wednesday, with hospitalizations and deaths predictably rising in their wake. What changed was that Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms—who has herself tested positive for COVID-19—issued a mask mandate for her city.
That’s why Kemp issued his new order. It’s not about blindly continuing to push for reopening despite the certain knowledge that this will result in misery for, at a minimum, thousands of people. It’s about deliberately putting those thousands on the line so that Kemp can put his finger in the eye of a mayor widely known to be on the short list for Democratic vice presidential nominee.
As the Atlanta Journal-Constitution makes clear, Gov. Kemp and Mayor Lance Bottoms have been sparring in recent weeks over that other topic that’s eating up the Fox airwaves: the need for restoring “law and order” to American cities. Trump may be threatening to show America how it’s done some time next week, but Kemp has already sent 1,000 National Guardsmen, complete with armored vehicles, into Atlanta after a state building was damaged. Lance Bottoms has made it clear that the troops are not there at her request.
Keisha Lance Bottoms has refused to rescind the mask order for Atlanta or to back away from restrictions she’s put in place on restaurants and other businesses. Kemp’s reaction is not to either back her play in the face of skyrocketing cases and a desperate need for action, or even to ignore the move as he had ignored similar actions taken in other localities. Instead Kemp has pounded the table to declare Atlanta’s rules “unenforceable” and issued Cartman-esque demands that Lance Bottoms respect his authority.
So … to sum up, it’s not that Brian Kemp is doing the worst damn thing possible out of ignorance, he’s doing it knowingly because some uppity Black woman is trying to protect people without his permission. Meanwhile, another 3,800 Georgians were confirmed to have COVID-19 on Wednesday, but they’re sure to admire Kemp’s “principled” stand.
It will come as no surprise that the other person on the end of attacks by Kemp and other state Republicans has been former gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams.