Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly said there is no potential penalty for violations of the mask-wearing ordinance. 

The Dunwoody City Council passed a mandatory mask-wearing ordinance July 13 to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. Penalties for violating the ordinance range from nothing or a police warning to six months in jail or a $1,000 fine. Despite a split vote, councilmembers agreed that the lack of leadership from the Governor’s Office has left them frustrated and confused.

In a 5-2 vote, the council passed an emergency ordinance that requires everyone in the city to wear a mask when in any indoor commercial or public space and when social distancing outside is not feasible.

The Dunwoody mayor and council held their first hybrid meeting June 13.

“I’m willing to take a chance,” Mayor Lynn Deutsch said. “This may not be exactly what the governor wants, but it is the only tool that we as Dunwoody have left in our toolbox.”

Exceptions to the mask mandate include children under 10 years old; people with medical conditions that prevent them wearing masks; while eating or drinking; while in a personal vehicle or while receiving services that prevents a mask; while in a swimming pool; while voting or assisting with voting; while outside and exercising when able to social distance; and within places of worship.

The Dunwoody Police Department is tasked with enforcing the ordinance, City Attorney Bill Riley said. There are no specific penalties in the ordinance, but city spokesperson Jennifer Boettcher said Section 1-6 of the city code said there are general penalties for any city ordinance violation.

“The general penalties go from nothing to up to six months in jail or a $1,000 fine,” Riley said in the meeting.

The requirement will go into effect July 16 to give the city staff time to let residents know about it. The ordinance will last 30 days with the option of the council to extend it.

The ordinance follows the lead of other cities in the state, including Atlanta and Brookhaven. The item was a late addition to the agenda. Originally, the council had only plans to vote on a resolution encouraging people to wear masks, which is similar to Gov. Brian Kemp’s existing executive order about the pandemic emergency.

The council unanimously passed that resolution after its approval of the ordinance. Councilmember John Heneghan recommended amendments to make the language consistent with the ordinance, which the council accepted and passed.

The mayor and council discussed the ordinance while holding their first hybrid in-person and remote meeting since the pandemic closures began. Deutsch and all present councilmembers wore masks during the meeting while at City Hall, making them hard to understand at times, which some viewers commented about on Facebook Live. Councilmembers Pam Tallmadge and Jim Riticher joined remotely.

The mandate and the governor’s order

Kemp’s executive order says municipalities cannot lessen or strengthen COVID-19 guidelines put out by the state, but Riley and councilmembers discussed legal language that they said make the state’s order unclear.

Kemp intends for residents to wear masks in his executive order, even if it isn’t a requirement, Riley said. Cities mandating masks could argue their ordinances are in line with the state’s intention, and therefore are enforceable. Because of the possibility of different interpretations, Riley said, the courts would have to decide whether they contradict each other.

The executive order also requires residents and visitors to follow sanitation guidelines put out by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. CDC guidelines recommend people should wear masks, and Tallmadge and Councilmember Stacey Harris said this recommendation makes the city ordinance in line with the governor’s intention.

All councilmembers agreed that they would wear masks and hope others do as well to slow the spread of the virus, though they had different interpretations of the governor’s executive order.

Riticher and Heneghan voted against the ordinance.

“Unfortunately, the governor — in my eyes — has tied my hands and said we’re not allowed to do this,” Heneghan said. “I’m trying to honor the rule of law, but at the same time, I am deeply upset at the lack of leadership on the state level.”

Deutsch said the ordinance to mandate the masks is necessary because encouraging masks in public relations campaigns aren’t effective.

Deutsch said the Governor’s Office asked city leaders to promote the state’s new “Georgia Safety Promise” campaign, which Kemp launched July 6. But Deutsch said the city already started a similar campaign, called “Mask Up Dunwoody,”  that hasn’t worked well.

“People are still not wearing masks, and it’s hard to get the message out when it’s an option,” Deutsch said.

Mandating masks would slow the spread of the virus, alleviate stress on the healthcare system and keep the economy open, Deutsch said. Since neighboring cities are also moving in the direction to mandate masks, Deutsch said the requirement is a good option to keep a regional approach to battling the public health crisis.

Councilmember Tom Lambert had some concerns about how to enforce the masks, but he said he sees it similar to other safety laws.

“Just like with seat belt laws and hands-free laws, you’re never going to have 100% compliance, Lambert said. “But those laws being in effect have drastically improved the number of people that comply with those issues that make everyone safer.”

“With the lack of leadership at the head of the state — the governor — you can break a rule,” Tallmadge said. “I have to, you know. This is public safety. This is the safety of our fellow citizens, and you have to put safety first.”

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