Read: Red state, blue city
These conflicts really are about citizens’ right to make choices for themselves, just not in the way the governors claim. They test whether residents of red-state cities, more minority-heavy and liberal than the state overall, should be able to make their own choices about governance. Over the past decade, there’s been a sharp increase in cases of states preempting city rules on everything from Happy Meals to bike lanes to vaping. While the stakes of coronavirus mask ordinances are more immediate, the clashes over masks are the logical extension of that steadily building conflict.
“We are about to see a shit storm of state and federal preemption orders, of a magnitude greater than anything in history,” Mark Pertschuk of Grassroots Change, which tracks such laws through an initiative called Preemption Watch, told me in 2016. The storm has arrived, carried in on the ill winds of a pandemic.
Kemp’s suit against Atlanta’s leaders comes after weeks of building tensions. In April, he issued an order on COVID-19 that blocked enforcement of any local or city rules that were “more or less restrictive” than his own. At that early stage in the pandemic, before masks were a common topic of discussion, this sort of preemption occasioned mostly grumbling from local authorities.
But as the virus spread—exacerbated in part by Kemp pushing a hasty, premature reopening of the state, over the objections of leaders in Georgia cities—masks came to the fore, and the ban started to become more contentious. At the beginning of July, Savannah Mayor Van Johnson announced a mask mandate despite Kemp’s order. A week later, leaders in Clarke County, home to Athens, instituted a mask mandate. The next day, July 8, Bottoms signed an executive order requiring masks. Other local leaders have done the same.
Initially, Kemp held his fire. But on July 15, President Trump visited Atlanta’s airport, where—as was his practice—he did not wear a mask. Bottoms told CNN that Trump had broken the law by defying the mandate. That evening, Kemp, a close Trump ally, issued a new order that explicitly preempted local mask ordinances. The following day he filed suit over Atlanta’s order.
Local leaders are furious. “It’s officially official. Governor Kemp does not give a damn about us,” said Savannah’s Johnson. Bottoms said her order remained in effect. Atlanta seems to be banking on tying up the discussion in litigation for as long as possible, buying time for mask mandates to do their work. (Helpfully for the dilatory strategy, two judges have already recused themselves from the case.)
David A. Graham: Governors are passing the coronavirus buck to mayors
The escalation in Georgia contrasts with conflicts in some other states where local leaders and governors initially clashed. The Republican governors of both Arizona and Texas initially blocked cities from enacting mask ordinances, but in June, as cases surged in both states, the governors backed down and allowed cities to act on their own. Georgia is not unique, though. This week, for example, Iowa City Mayor Bruce Teague announced a mask mandate that conflicts with preemption by Governor Kim Reynolds.