By Rich McKay, Gabriella Borter
ATLANTA (Reuters) – Officials in the U.S. state of Georgia on Thursday appeared headed for a clash over face masks to fight the spread of the coronavirus after the governor barred mayors from requiring residents to wear them.
Governor Brian Kemp issued an executive order late on Wednesday suspending local regulations requiring “face coverings, masks, face shields or any other personal protective equipment” in public.
The order said residents were “strongly encouraged” to wear face coverings in public. Kemp, a member of President Donald Trump’s Republican Party, suggested any order mandating masks would be too restrictive.
Savannah Mayor Van Johnson, who issued a mask mandate in his Georgia city on July 1, reacted swiftly.
It is officially official. Governor Kemp does not give a damn about us. Every man and woman for himself/herself. Ignore the science and survive the best you can.
COVID-19 cases have spiked across the American South and West after local officials started loosening economic and social restrictions aimed at slowing the spread of the virus. On Thursday, Florida reported its third record increase in deaths this month, up 156. The previous record was 133 on July 9.
Health experts say people should wear masks and adhere to social distancing as lockdowns ease.
In Atlanta, Georgia’s largest city, Democratic Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms required masks on July 8.
Ethan Padgett, 37, a furloughed arts museum worker, said he believed the governor’s order was a “bad idea.”
“We need to wear masks to stop the spread. The mayor knows that,” he said, talking through his mask outside Joe’s Coffee in the East Atlanta Village neighborhood.
“So many people aren’t following this day-to-day, but are taking their cues from our leaders. If the governor takes it more seriously, people will.”
The governor was just encouraging people to do the right thing, said Pat Walker, 54, who was also wearing a mask.
“People should have a choice but choose wisely,” she said.
MASKS A POLITICAL ISSUE
Trump himself has been at odds with the advice of his own health officials, wearing a mask in public only once.
Many of his party’s governors and local officials have followed his lead, but not all. In Texas, where infections have surged, Republican Governor Greg Abbott two weeks ago ordered residents in most counties to wear face masks in public.
Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said some states had become lax on basic protections.
“We need to wear face coverings, especially if we’re in any type of a hot zone or unable to socially distance,” Azar told Fox Business Network on Thursday.
Trump is seeking re-election in November but faces mounting criticism – and falling opinion poll numbers – over his handling of the pandemic, including from within his own party.
Maryland Governor Larry Hogan, who chairs the National Governors Association, slammed Trump’s coronavirus response in a Washington Post opinion piece subtitled, “I’m a GOP (Republican) governor. Why didn’t Trump help my state with coronavirus testing?”
Hogan described how states scrambled to get help on testing, only to have Trump declare in early April it was not the federal government’s problem.
“It was hopeless, waiting around for him. Governors were being told that we were on our own. It was sink or swim,” Hogan wrote.
New U.S. cases are now averaging around 60,000 a day, with 30 of the 50 states reporting record increases in new cases this month. The total number has surpassed 3.5 million, by far the highest in the world, and more than 137,000 Americans have died.
Many states have had to roll back reopenings aimed at pumping up local economies crushed by the coronavirus shutdowns. Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf late on Wednesday reimposed limits on restaurants, bars and social gatherings, noting “an unsettling climb” in new infections over the past week.
New York City, once the country’s epicenter, has been slower than others to reopen – by not lifting its ban on indoor service at bars and restaurants, for example – and continues to see results, Mayor Bill de Blasio told a briefing on Thursday.
Only 2% of more than 40,000 city residents tested reported positive on Wednesday, he said, against a national average of 8.8%, rising to over 20% in some states.
Target Corp and CVS Health Corp on Thursday became the latest retailers to require that customers wear face coverings while shopping at their U.S. stores.
Reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta and Gabriella Borter in New York; Additional reporting by Doina Chiacu, Lisa Shumaker and Peter Szekely; Writing by Sonya Hepinstall; Editing by Howard Goller.