Georgia’s surging coronavirus caseload is prompting new local restrictions amid ongoing opposition to mask and vaccine mandates by the governor.
The city of Decatur next to Atlanta began requiring masks inside grocery stores, restaurants, and other businesses in the city on Tuesday. Decatur’s ordinance does allow businesses to opt-out of the requirement, but only if they post a sign at each public entrance saying they do not adhere to it.
City Commissioner Tony Powers said businesses had an incentive to comply voluntarily.
"I don’t want to penalize someone by saying, ’Oh, we’re singling you out because you’re different," he said at a meeting on Monday. "But if I’m that business, I’d say, ‘God, I don’t really want to be singled out. I don’t want to be that business.’ Because people will shop where they feel safe."
The city of Athens is under a similar, voluntary mask policy for businesses. Savannah has instituted a mask requirement at city buildings, hospitals, schools, and a few other places, but not businesses. Atlanta requires masks indoors and doesn’t allow businesses to opt-out.
In Atlanta, organizers of Dragon Con, the sci-fi, fantasy, and gaming convention that draws tens of thousands of visitors to the city over Labor Day weekend every year, announced Tuesday that they will require this year’s attendees to show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test taken within 72 hours of arrival.
Also in the Atlanta area, protesters gathered in the city of Marietta on Wednesday to oppose Wellstar Health Systems’ vaccine requirement for employees. Wellstar is among a number of hospital systems in the state that have mandated vaccines for staff, as have some private colleges and universities and other private employers.
Elsewhere in the state, the top judge in Georgia’s Macon Judicial Circuit suspended some jury trials because of the COVID-19 surge.
Chief Judge Howard Simms has put trials in Bibb County on hold through August and will reevaluate the suspension in September, local prosecutors said Tuesday. The judicial circuit also includes Peach County, and jury trials will continue there.
The district attorney’s office for the Macon circuit said it will be prepared to move forward with trials once they are deemed safe. In the meantime, it will work with defense attorneys to resolve cases involving nonviolent offenders to present them to judges for approval.
Bibb County, like other places in Georgia, is in the midst of a surge in infections fueled by the delta variant of the virus among people who are not vaccinated. Only 42% of Georgia’s population is fully vaccinated, well below the national average.
Hospitals have had to put off elective surgeries and turn patients away amid a crush of COVID-19 cases not seen since a winter surge. More than 4,700 COVID patients were hospitalized statewide Wednesday, and almost 90% of intensive care beds were in use.
Gov. Brian Kemp on Monday reiterated his opposition to mask and vaccine mandates and said he had no plans to force businesses to close. He announced additional state funding for hospital staff and encouraged unvaccinated residents to talk to their doctors or others they trust about vaccines.
"Georgians know the risk of this virus, and they know we have the tools at our disposal to prevent serious illness, hospitalization and death," he said at a news conference.