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A Georgia mayor on his state’s ‘deeply frustrating’ political battle over face masks

On Wednesday, Georgia’s Republican governor, Brian Kemp, put the issue of wearing face masks front and center. Kemp signed an order that bans towns and cities from requiring masks be worn, even as coronavirus cases in the state rise. Mayor Kelly Girtz of Georgia’s Athens-Clarke County, which recently approved a public mask mandate, joins Amna Nawaz to discuss the “deeply frustrating” situation.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    Georgia Governor Brian Kemp's order has put the issue of masks front and center in that state.

    With me now is Kelly Girtz. He is a Democrat and the mayor of Athens-Clarke County, Georgia, which moved to require people to wear masks in public earlier this month.

    Mayor Girtz, welcome to the "NewsHour," and thanks for making the time.

    I want to ask you about some late news we have just gotten about Governor Brian Kemp and the state attorney general suing the Atlanta mayor, Keisha Bottoms, and the City Council for their requirement for public mask wearing. What is your reaction to that?

  • Kelly Girtz:

    Amna, this has all been so deeply frustrating.

    We simply want to create a platform for health and safety for the local population. I have been in constant contact with Mayor Bottoms and other mayors throughout the state.

    And, in lieu of action on a statewide basis, as we have seen in other Republican-led states like Alabama and Arkansas, we need to act as local boots on the ground who are keeping people in our communities safe.

    We are going to continue with our order in Athens-Clarke County, as Mayor Bottoms has also indicated she is going to do, and Mayor Davis in Augusta and Mayor Johnson in Savannah, because we understand that, as science has demonstrated over the last many months, it is simply safer to have a mask on for those around you.

    The droplet dispersement, the aerosol dispersement is diminished by use of a mask. And so we're going to follow this. And I have to say…

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Mayor Girtz, let me — let me just ask you, if I can. I apologize, sir, I know your time is limited.

    But even the head of Georgia's Restaurant Association has said it's confusing for people to have different rules in different counties. You need one set of guidelines. Let businesses decide if they should require masks.

    What do you say to that?

  • Kelly Girtz:

    It's been interesting, because large and very small retailers have said to me, we like a mask order, because that sets a citywide or a countywide standard, and so we know, from one block to another, one vendor to another, the public is going to have the same experience.

    We're also the flagship host for the University of Georgia here in the state. And just a couple of weeks ago, the university system indicated that every student, faculty member and staff member was going to have to wear a mask in interior spaces at the University of Georgia and in all other public universities in the state.

    And so what we want to do is be able to provide the same solid foundation on campus and off campus here in Athens.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Mayor Girtz, let me ask you.

    Both your hospitals in Athens were full yesterday. You had to divert patients to other facilities. Experts say you are not yet at your peak. Do you have what you need now to meet the moment and to handle the influx of patients?

  • Kelly Girtz:

    Unfortunately, we don't have what we need.

    The hospitals are very nimble, and they're able to open up some overflow wards interior to their spaces. But it's taken longer to get test kits here. And it's taken much longer to get test results here.

    People call me every day here in my office and say, I'm feeling sick, I have come into contact with somebody who's COVID-positive, and it's going to take me five days to even get an appointment to get a test.

    And then I'm hearing that it's taking somewhere between four days and eight days to get results after that test. That's antithetical to the kind of things that need to happen. I mean, I sit here in front of you, and I wonder, can I get annexed into Germany or at least North Carolina?

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Mayor Girtz, I should mention, as you said, students are coming back to campus at the University of Georgia next month.

    With all this confusion over which rule stands on the face masks, in a matter of seconds, are you worried about compliance and the virus spiking in a few weeks?

  • Kelly Girtz:

    Absolutely.

    Here we are in July, and we haven't even had the student population return. I wonder very much, where are we going to be in September in October and November, when more people are inside, and not in outdoor spaces?

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That is Mayor Kelly Girtz of Athens-Clarke County in Georgia.

    Thank you so much for your time. Please stay safe.

  • Kelly Girtz:

    Thank you, Amna.

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