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Atlanta Mayor Defends Legal Face-Off With Georgia's Governor Over Masks

Jul 28, 2020
Originally published on July 29, 2020 9:15 pm

Democratic Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and Republican Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp are facing off in a legal battle over mask mandates.

Bottoms issued an executive order on July 8 requiring people to wear masks in Atlanta. Kemp sued, saying her policy violates his executive order, which strongly encourages mask wearing but does not require it. Kemp said counties and municipalities could not make their own rules that were either more or less restrictive than his statewide rules.

The two sides have been negotiating to settle the case. A court hearing scheduled for Tuesday was canceled to continue talks.

"We'll see" if a negotiated solution is possible, Bottoms told NPR's Ari Shapiro. "The most important thing is that we continue to keep at the forefront of every decision that we make the health and safety of the people who call Atlanta home. And what we know from our health professionals is that wearing masks goes a very, very long way in helping to stop the spread of COVID-19."

Bottoms talked with All Things Considered about the legal dispute and the upcoming school year. Here are excerpts:

Gov. Kemp's position is that mayors cannot implement public health policies that go beyond his executive orders. Why do you believe a mayor should be able to override a governor on an issue like this?

Well, there are many legal theories on this, amongst them including the fact that it's believed that the governor's emergency order exceeded his powers as governor. ...

At the end of the day, the governor belongs to a party that often speaks about local control and often elevates the need and desire for local municipalities to be able to make their own decisions as it relates to any number of matters, including when we entered the COVID-19 crisis and schools were making decisions on whether or not they would close; the governor deferred to local control on those decisions.

It is my belief that a mask mandate is also something that local control should rule on. The reason being, we know that our numbers are very, very high in Atlanta. ... And the only way that we are going to get to the other side of COVID-19 is to start making smart decisions about how we proceed with the health and safety of our residents. And part of that, it's very simple: wearing a mask.

Let me also ask you about plans for the new school year. One of your four children tested positive for [the coronavirus] and you and your husband did as well. How does that experience as the parent of a school-age child who had the disease affect your thinking about whether Atlanta students can safely go back to school in person?

My concern really is one that's born out of our experience because, again, we had one of our children to test positive, asymptomatic, and then my husband and I became infected a week later. This is what our teachers, our custodians, our cafeteria workers, our bus drivers and so many others will face when our children go back to school. Not to mention many of our children in Atlanta have higher than the national average rates of asthma. Asthma is very common with African American children. African American children are more likely to die from asthma than other races. And so there are a number of concerns, including our children then perhaps being asymptomatic and then going home and infecting and impacting their families. And we know in Black and brown communities, COVID-19 is more likely to be deadly. ...

As mayor, I don't control the schools, per our city charter. It's an independently elected school board along with [an] independently appointed superintendent. But that being said, we're working very closely with our new superintendent to make sure that our children have what they need so that they can be prepared for school this fall.

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Big-city mayors are on the front lines of fights happening all over the country right now, and that includes our next guest, Atlanta's Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms. She is urging the federal government to stop sending federal agents to U.S. cities, fighting a lawsuit from Georgia's governor over Atlanta's mask requirement and the mayor is also trying to put the brakes on a plan to send kids back to school in person in the fall - all this while she is believed to be under consideration as a possible vice presidential running mate for Democrat Joe Biden.

Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

KEISHA LANCE BOTTOMS: Thank you for having me.

SHAPIRO: Let's start with the issue of masks. Governor Brian Kemp, a Republican, is challenging Atlanta's mask requirement, and an emergency court hearing that was scheduled for today was canceled when the governor said he wants to continue good faith negotiations with you. Do you think you'll be able to negotiate a solution to the standoff?

BOTTOMS: We'll see. The most important thing is that we continue to keep at the forefront of every decision that we make the health and safety of the people who call Atlanta home. And what we know from our health professionals is that wearing mask goes a very, very long way in helping to stop the spread of COVID-19. And so I've always been abundantly clear that the business recommendations, advisory committee recommendations were just that - recommendations for businesses to follow. But I do believe that a mask mandate is important, and it certainly is needed in the city of Atlanta as we are experiencing record-breaking numbers as it relates to COVID-19.

SHAPIRO: Governor Kemp's position is that mayors cannot implement public health policies that go beyond his executive orders. Why do you believe a mayor should be able to override a governor on an issue like this?

BOTTOMS: The governor belongs to a party that often speaks about local control and often elevates the need and desire for local municipalities to be able to make their own decisions as it relates to any number of matters, including when we entered the COVID-19 crisis and schools were making decisions on whether or not they were closed. The governor deferred to local control on those decisions.

It is my belief that a mask mandate is also something that local control should rule on, the reason being we know that our numbers are very, very high in Atlanta. They are high throughout the metro area. They are very high in cities with large populations throughout this state. And the only way that we, again, are going to get to the other side of COVID-19 is to start making smart decisions about how we proceed with the health and safety of our residents, and part of that - it's very simple - wearing a mask.

SHAPIRO: Let me also ask you about plans for the new school year. I know that one of your four children tested positive for COVID-19 and that you and your husband did as well. And I'm glad you're all OK. How does that experience as the parent of a school-aged child who had the disease affect your thinking about whether Atlanta students can safely go back to school in person?

BOTTOMS: My concern really is one that's borne out of our experience because, again, we had one of our children to test positive - asymptomatic. And then my husband and I became infected a week later. This is what our teachers, our custodians, our cafeteria workers, our bus drivers and so many others will face when our children go back to school, not to mention many of our children in Atlanta have higher than the national average rates of asthma. Asthma is very common with African American children. African American children are more likely to die from asthma than other races.

And so there are a number of concerns, including our children then perhaps being asymptomatic and then going home and infecting and impacting their families. And we know in Black and brown communities, COVID-19 is more likely to be deadly.

SHAPIRO: We also know that in Black and brown communities, access to remote schooling resources are less available. And so how do you balance the need to educate the children, the need for parents to be able to do their work with your expressed desire to keep people safe?

BOTTOMS: It's tough. And it's the reason towards the end of the school year that we began working with Verizon, with AT&T, with Sprint and many of our other local carriers to try and get technology iPads and also hot spots into the hands of our kids. We did a pretty good job with that. There are still many children who still did not pick up their devices and hot spots at the end of the year, and we're working with the Atlanta public schools to try and make sure that everyone has access since their school year has been delayed by nine weeks.

As mayor, I don't control the schools for our city charter. It's an independently elected school board. But that being said, we're working very closely with our new superintendent to make sure that our children have what they need so that they can be prepared for school this fall.

SHAPIRO: Finally, I need to ask what you can tell us about any conversations you might have had with the Biden campaign as they search for a running mate.

BOTTOMS: Well, I endorsed Joe Biden over a year ago, so my conversations with the Biden campaign can range from daily to weekly. So that hasn't changed. You know, far be it for me to second-guess what he thinks he needs in a running mate. But generally speaking, we know that turnout is going to be extremely important this year, and I've heard the vice president say nobody votes for a president based on who's on the ticket. But I know this year, it's going to be exceedingly important to have people excited about voting this year and giving people reason to literally risk their lives to go and vote. And I think, you know, Vice President Biden, of course, brings a lot of enthusiasm to the ticket, and I think anyone who he adds on that ticket should equally match that.

SHAPIRO: I'm really struck by that phrase - literally risk their lives to go and vote. That's where we're at.

BOTTOMS: Absolutely - 2020 and COVID-19. That's where we are.

SHAPIRO: Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, thank you for talking with us again.

BOTTOMS: Thank you for having me.

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