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Savannah, Ga., Mayor Responds To Kemp's Order Overriding Local Mask Mandates

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

Some choice words on Twitter from the mayor of Savannah, Ga. It is officially official, wrote Mayor Van Johnson last night, Governor Kemp does not give a damn about us. The mayor's tweet came shortly after Georgia Governor Brian Kemp signed an executive order banning local governments from requiring masks. That put a finer point on an earlier executive order prohibiting cities and counties from taking any action that was more restrictive than what was ordered statewide. And so amid rising cases of coronavirus throughout Georgia, existing mask mandates, including the one in Savannah, are essentially void. Mayor Van Johnson joins us now.

Welcome to the program.

VAN JOHNSON: Thank you so much. I appreciate the opportunity.

MCCAMMON: Well, as I'm sure you know, Governor Kemp has said he strongly encourages masks. He wears one in public. But he says requiring them is impractical and unenforceable for local business owners, for example. He says mandates are a bridge too far. How do you respond to that?

JOHNSON: I respond to it by following the science. Is the issue about public safety, about public health, or is it about convenience? Right to the west of us, the state of Alabama now mandates masks. In South Carolina and in Florida, they leave it up to the municipalities to decide whether to mandate masks. And even today, the White House, when asked about a nationwide mask order - the White House said that it's leaving that decision up to the localities.

So again, I think for us, we are in the fight for our lives. We are trying to get past COVID-19. It's going to take all of us firing on all cylinders, working together to be able to make this happen. And we know from the science - from the CDC, which is located in Atlanta - that wearing masks is a part of this three-pronged approach to be able to slow down the spread of this virus.

MCCAMMON: And you made masks mandatory in public spaces and commercial establishments there in Savannah on July 1. You were the first in Georgia to do so. How hard has it been to enforce?

JOHNSON: It's not really been hard to enforce because, again, our goal here was compliance, not enforcement. So we've given out over a thousand masks. And anyone who wanted a mask - before we would write a ticket for anyone, we would offer them a mask. And so our visitors, our citizens gratefully took a mask. And therefore, no ticket was required.

The goal of this, again, is to have people to wear a mask. And again, we have over 15 million visitors come to our beautiful city every year. Some know. Some don't know. And again, our role is to make sure we educate and make sure we provide a mask so they are in compliance.

MCCAMMON: Governor Kemp's office sent us a statement here at NPR calling your mask mandate illegal since it is more restrictive than what's mandated statewide. And they said there's no evidence you're taking action to enforce what is required statewide, including social distancing. They say you haven't stopped unlawful gatherings in your city, for instance. How do you respond to that?

JOHNSON: I think, again, we're really focused on the wrong things. The reality is that the science is very, very clear. We're all doing the best we can during these very hard times. Again, social distancing, per his order, is - was 50 people, I believe. And again, people are out. Things are open. And people are gathering.

And again - so our ability to enforce it is limited because these are unfunded mandates from the state level. The governor could put a order out there, but he's not giving us the resources to help us to enforce those orders. So again, we're doing the best that we can. Again, this is really about the wearing of masks. This is about being able to keep people safe. The science has been absolutely clear.

On July the 2, Governor Kemp said himself that he was not going to stand in the way of Savannah's mandatory mask order. And yet, here we are two weeks later, and he's issuing something specifically - and the only one in the country that specifically denies cities and counties the ability to be able to take care of their citizens. And to me, that's unacceptable.

MCCAMMON: And we're almost out of time. But quickly, what now for Savannah? Will you fight the ban on mask mandates? And in the meantime, what are you telling residents of your city?

JOHNSON: Well, for us, there's nothing to fight. As we're - where we're concerned, Savannah's mask mandate is still in effect. We still have legal standing. We believe the governor does not have the authority. And so therefore, we continue to enforce and will enforce our current mask ordinance.

MCCAMMON: Even if that brings you head-to-head with the governor.

JOHNSON: Again, the governor will do what he has to do. We will do what it takes. And we believe we have not only legal standing, but we have the science behind us to not only demonstrate that an emergent condition exists in Savannah, in Georgia.

MCCAMMON: I'm going to have to stop you there. But thanks so much.

That's Mayor Van Johnson of Savannah, Ga.

JOHNSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.