Georgia Governor Brian Kemp on Friday urged everyone in his state to wear a mask for four weeks to halt the spread of the coronavirus but stood firm on banning state and local authorities from mandating the wearing of masks.
With the state experiencing a spike in Covid-19 infections and the country divided over expert medical advice to wear masks, the governor conceded that face coverings would help slow infections but said mandates were unenforceable and suggested they would hobble the economy.
"While we all agree that wearing a mask is effective, I'm confident that Georgians don't need a mandate to do the right thing. I know that Georgians can rise to this challenge and they will," Kemp told a news conference where he urged everyone to wear a mask for at least four weeks.
He also urged Georgians to voluntarily maintain physical distancing, wash their hands frequently and heed his executive order, which also calls for those measures and bans gatherings of more than 50 people for the rest of July.
The coronavirus has infected more than 3.5 million Americans and killed nearly 140,000, both figures leading the world, and cases have spiked in many states including Georgia. The country shattered a daily record on Thursday, reporting more than 77,000 new cases, according to a Reuters tally.
Kemp issued an executive order on Wednesday suspending local regulations that require masks, and on Thursday sued the city of Atlanta to stop it from enforcing its mask mandate.
The governor said the lawsuit was filed on behalf of business owners and their employees who would be affected by what he called "disastrous policies."
The state's lawsuit alleges Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms lacked the authority to require masks and said she must follow Kemp's executive orders.
"Mayor Bottoms' mask mandate cannot be enforced, but her decision to shutter businesses and undermine economic growth is devastating," Kemp, a fellow Republican and supporter of President Donald Trump, said on Friday. "Atlanta businesses are hurt, violent crime is up and families are rightfully worried."
The Georgia conflict played out amid a wider cultural divide in the United States, in which public health experts have pleaded with politicians and the public to cover their faces to help stop the spread of infection.
Trump and his followers have resisted a full-throated endorsement of masks and have been calling for a return to normal economic activity following pandemic-induced shutdowns.
Videos on social media show people across the country irately declaring their right to shop or congregate in public without masks, with many disputing evidence that masks are effective.
Shannon Cotton, a registered nurse who works at a Covid-designated intensive care unit in San Diego, where she said she comes into contact with Covid-positive patients about 25 times a day, blasted political leaders including Trump for failing to promote masks.
"Something as simple as putting on a mask to prevent spreading a disease has become politicized and it's disgusting," said Cotton, who works at the University of California San Diego Medical Center's Hillcrest campus. "We all need to look around and be a little more altruistic. I am a firm believer in masking, masking, masking. That's the best way to protect others."