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Hey, Georgia: Alabama Mandates Masks

Governor Brian Kemp speaks during at Clay National Guard Center in Marietta, Georgia on May 21, 2020.
Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp. Photo by Capt. Bryant Wine, courtesy the Georgia National Guard.

Last Monday, exactly one week ago, a young adult who lives in Atlanta began displaying mild symptoms after spending time with a friend who was clearly ill but awaiting COVID-19 test results.

My young acquaintance began searching for an appointment to get tested for the new coronavirus. Success came eventually, sort of: The test is supposed to be administered on Thursday this week. That’s right – a diligent search for an available testing slot for a symptomatic young adult in Atlanta required a 10-day wait, four months into this country’s experience with the pandemic. After the test, it might take anywhere from a couple more days to a couple more weeks to get the results.

That is how far we are from having a good handle on the disease. Contact tracing is, obviously, impossible. By the time any contacts can be traced, the virus might be on its third or fifth or ninth generation of spread, depending on how well people socially distance.

What do young adults do when they find themselves in this situation? Do they tell their employer and self-isolate? Or tell their employer but go to work until they get a positive test result? Or say nothing pending test results if the symptoms are mild or ambiguous? Do they ride a bus or a subway, or climb into an Uber or Lyft vehicle – or drive an Uber or Lyft vehicle, if that is what they need to do to make ends meet? Do they go to the grocery or the pharmacy? Do they use an ATM or get into an elevator with strangers?

It’s a miserable situation. Whatever they do, one thing is clear: It is vitally important that they wear a face covering while they do it.

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp has not gotten the memo. In an epic display of cluelessness – scientific, logistical and even political cluelessness – Kemp issued an executive order last week that not only failed to mandate face coverings in public places, but purported to render any locally imposed requirements “unenforceable.” And that order applied, specifically and most significantly, in Atlanta.

Kemp says he has nothing against face masks; in fact, he encourages people to use them. But he has called enforcing their use “a bridge too far.” This from a governor who has called National Guard troops to Atlanta, the seat of Georgia’s government, to protect state assets from damage during recent civil unrest.

Here is an aside to Gov. Kemp: Is the state workforce a state asset? If you think it is, and if you observe that the state Capitol and its golden dome are in the middle of Atlanta, wouldn’t a mandatory mask requirement to protect your workforce be as important to state government as the protection of the buildings that house it?

Is Kemp even aware that a few minutes’ drive from his office, people are waiting as long as 10 days just to get a coronavirus test, and then waiting longer to get results?

Let me put this in terms anybody from Georgia will understand: Alabama now requires face coverings in public when social distancing is not possible. Yes, I said Alabama. I mean no offense to Alabamans. Literally, some of my oldest friends live there. Georgians, however, do not like to see themselves as less forward-thinking than their country cousins who reside a short distance but a full time zone to the west.

Kemp is at loggerheads with Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, who has herself tested positive for the virus. Bottoms, a Democrat, wants to roll back her city’s reopening to Phase One, requiring mask-wearing in public and instructing residents to stay home except for essential trips. She called Kemp’s reopening of the state “reckless.” Georgia, like much of the Sun Belt, has seen a significant rise in cases, although not to the extent of harder-hit venues such as Florida, Texas and California.

Kemp, a Republican, wants to get Georgia’s economy moving. He insists that only he, not the mayor, can impose or lift restrictions on Atlantans’ daily lives. In the governor’s view, business must be allowed to resume given the pandemic’s ongoing and protracted nature.

The balance between public health (which extends far beyond COVID-19) and economic security is a judgment call where reasonable people can differ. But Kemp’s refusal to order masking in public confined spaces is unreasonable even in light of his own goals, because he is making it harder for businesses to operate safely.

In the absence of government mandates, an increasing number of large and small businesses are taking matters into their own hands and requiring customers to wear masks. Employees at such businesses across the country have been assaulted by recalcitrant customers. In one New Jersey case, a convenience store employee allegedly assaulted an unmasked customer, reversing the usual script. While such confrontations are usually just unpleasant, they have sometimes had tragic consequences.

As I have written before, the opposition to mask wearing is irrational. It may be a psychological response to fear and stress in some cases. In others it is a grossly misdirected view of personal and constitutional freedoms, or just plain anti-social. Polling indicates that much of the opposition comes from the Republican side of the national political divide, although that does not mean most Republicans – especially the sensible ones – oppose mask-wearing in public. Exhibit A is for Alabama. You don’t get more Republican than Alabama.

Whatever the ginned-up justifications, by refusing to mandate masks by government order, Kemp is hanging the employees of his state’s businesses out to dry. With a stroke of his pen, he could allow them to tell customers to put on masks or stay outside because the government requires it. Instead, he makes them cite private property rights to anti-maskers who, bizarrely, seem to see themselves as the modern-day version of the civil rights activists who sat at segregated lunch counters.

I don’t know what Kemp is thinking, or if he is thinking much beyond opposing anything Atlanta’s mayor favors. I do know that he is not doing the Republican brand any good in an election year. I know, as someone who has a place of business in Atlanta, that he is making it less safe to do business there. And I know they have this all figured out, over in Alabama.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business."

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