America’s mask wars return as communities split over new guidance

On Wednesday, Georgia governor Brian Kemp used his official Twitter account to say his state “will not lock down or impose statewide mask mandates”.

It was not the first time the Republican had expressed firm opposition to mandatory face coverings to curb the spread of Covid-19. It was also not the first time Kemp’s resistance to mask mandates met with equally firm resistance from the mayor of Atlanta. Hours later, Keisha Lance Bottoms issued an executive order mandating that masks be worn indoors throughout the Georgia state capital.

“Public health experts overwhelmingly agree, and data has proved, that wearing a face covering helps slow the spread of this deadly virus,” Mayor Bottoms said in a statement.

“As Covid-19 rates increase, we must remain vigilant, wear a mask, follow [federal] guidelines and other measures to ensure the safety and wellbeing of our communities.”

The two leaders have clashed publicly over mask requirements since last summer, on Twitter and in court. A year ago Kemp filed a lawsuit against Bottoms, stating that the mayor “does not have the legal authority to modify, change or ignore” his executive orders forbidding municipal officials from mandating that citizens wear masks.

Businesses in Georgia have attempted to avoid offending customers while trying to promote safety after a period of economic challenges.

Many restaurant owners declined to comment on the record, saying through representation that the subject was “too toxic”. Others seemed inclined to strike a careful balance.

“Our staff is fully vaccinated and we rely on our customers to decide for themselves to wear, or not to wear, masks,” said Chris Green, chief marketing officer of Legends Distillery, which will open in Atlanta’s northern suburbs in mid-August.

Paulina de La Valette, co-owner of the Atlanta dance studio Dance 101, sent a note to newsletter subscribers saying the company would “encourage” members to wear masks but would not issue a rule. She opened the newsletter with a bit of political humor: “Welp, Georgia’s favorite divorced parents, Brian Kemp & Keisha Lance Bottoms, are fighting again and we’re in the middle of it … awesome.”

Kemp and Bottoms are not the only officials arguing it out. Disagreements over whether people can opt out of wearing masks are also causing passionate political arguments in other southern states, including Texas.

Passengers at Union Station in Washington on Friday.
Passengers at Union Station in Washington on Friday. Photograph: Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

Two days after the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released updated guidance recommending Americans wear masks indoors, Governor Greg Abbott signed an executive order stopping municipalities and government agencies from compelling Texans to do so, or even to require Covid vaccines.

Abbott is threatening fines of up to $1,000 against local government entities in Texas, days after officials in Austin, Dallas and Houston urged residents to return to mask-wearing.

Abbott was joined in denouncing mandates by the Texas senator Ted Cruz, who said: “The CDC has lost its credibility when it comes to what decisions Americans should make about Covid-19. It’s long past time we got back to trusting the American people, not unelected federal bureaucrats.”

Elsewhere in the southern US, Florida is grappling with rising Covid cases, having experienced a 50% increase in positivity in a week. Still, Governor Ron Desantis says he wants parents to decide if their children wear masks to school, not local government.

Late on Friday, DeSantis signed an executive order that allowed parents to ignore mask mandates. A month ago, the governor signed the “Parents’ Bill of Rights,” which he cited on Friday as a legal rationale for his decision on masks.

DeSantis’s order came after the mayors of Orange and Miami-Dade Counties defied him by instituting requirements for facial coverings and, in Orange County, full vaccination for non-union county employees by the end of September. Disney World also just required all visitors aged two and older to wear face coverings, regardless of vaccination status, indoors and in certain modes of its company-owned transit.

It all leads to confusion, said Carlton Solle, co-founder of G95, a protective apparel company in the Atlanta area that has been making facial coverings since 2016.

Solle told the Guardian business increased with the need for masks under Covid, so he began making masks in addition to scarves and neck gaiters. He also said a lack of understanding and education may keep people from fully protecting themselves.

“Unfortunately,” he said, “I think the messaging has changed so much that now you have folks who were supportive of wearing masks questioning what the hell’s going on, because it constantly changes.”

Solle said he pulled his daughter out of school in the Atlanta area before other parents because he was concerned about the spread of the virus. After realizing home-schooling presented challenges he hadn’t considered, he sent her back. But the experience made him wish things had been handled differently when Covid first began to spread.

“If they would have just said, ‘Hey, suit up, be cautious and keep on rolling,’ I think it would have been a better way of approaching this. But I think shutting everything down and the politics getting involved just made it so messy and complicated.”