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'We're fighting our own state': Southern mayors push back on state coronavirus responses

"The idea that every mayor, every governor, every local official should figure out their own pandemic response and what to do and not to do is crazy," one expert said.
Image: Chokwe Antar Lumumba
Jackson, Miss., Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba announces a stay-at-home order for the city because of the coronavirus pandemic on April 1.Barbara Gauntt / Clarion Ledger via Imagn file

ATLANTA — When Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, a Republican, announced Thursday that he was suing Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms over the city’s decision to enforce a mask mandate, he created another battleground in the ongoing struggle between states and cities over how to respond to the pandemic.

Bottoms on Friday called the lawsuit “bizarre” and said she believed it was clear that Kemp was motivated by his political ideology, rather than the leadership required in this moment. The governor's office disputed that characterization.

Yet Bottoms is just one of several Democratic city mayors in Republican-controlled Southern states to institute local mask mandates when they felt state political leadership was too slow in responding to coronavirus outbreaks — but localized guidance is not effective enough, mayors across the region said.

Mayors of large cities in Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee and Georgia said their political counterparts at the state level are acting as though this is a local issue, not a global pandemic. They expressed frustration over the lack of coordination and consistent response provided by state leaders, all while the pandemic and basic precautions like wearing masks and social distancing have become politicized.

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Because their jurisdictions are small and under-resourced, many mayors have said they feel unable to provide their constituents a full-throated response to defeat the virus. And even if they felt that they were empowered to make decisions, clearly not all Americans are willing to comply with orders.

“It is mind boggling that this governor who did not know that this virus was asymptomatic until we were well into the pandemic would waste resources on suing me personally and our city council for a mask mandate,” Bottoms said on MSNBC Friday.

Kemp's office said that the intention of the lawsuit is to challenge Bottom's decision to move the city back to Phase 1 of reopening, which requires people to shelter at home and restaurants to close dining rooms, though the lawsuit does also target Atlanta's mask mandate.

"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,” Kemp said at a press conference that served as his first public remarks since becoming the country's only governor to openly attempt to block a local government mask ordinance.

Jackson, Mississippi, Mayor Chokwe Lumumba said the divide between the state and local government response is evident to him each day. The governor’s office has not provided leadership during the crisis, except to decide to reopen the economy completely at the end of May although the state's case count continued to trend upward, he said. Without state or federal leadership, Lumumba said, health protocols can change depending on what side of the street you’re walking on — because that’s how close some municipalities are to one another.

Gov. Tate Reeves, who did not respond when asked for comment, only ordered a mask mandate for 13 of the hardest hit counties in the state on Monday. Lumumba said the localized, patchwork response still isn’t enough.

While Lumumba had hoped to take a slow, phased approach, he said Jackson quickly became an island as the communities surrounding it went back to business as normal. State leaders haven’t provided significant help to its largest city and state capital, the mayor said, noting that Jackson is home to the state’s largest hospital system.

“When infection rates grow in the surrounding communities, then it's our hospitalization rates that are going to be impacted as well. It's our ventilators that will be utilized at a much higher level. And so that's another reason that we have been screaming out for partnership, screaming out for continuity — we're screaming out for an ability to share data.”

Lumumba said he fears that the state leadership has chosen to not work with the city for political reasons. Republican state leaders recently displayed that politicization, he said, when they met at the state capitol in Jackson earlier this month and did not follow basic protocols, including wearing masks or socially distancing from one another.

An outbreak at the capitol ensued — the lieutenant governor, the speaker of the Mississippi House of Representatives and dozens of other lawmakers came down with the virus — even though Lumumba had instituted a mask mandate for the city.

“It exemplifies just how committed we are to the political polarization that we see statewide and nationwide during this moment of crisis,” Lumumba said. “My position when I'm telling people to wear facial coverings is, listen, if you don't like me or my politics, just wear a mask to live another day to disagree with me. The mask is not the political issue — it’s a health issue.”

Birmingham, Alabama, Mayor Randall Woodfin was one of the earliest city leaders in the South to put in a mask mandate, instituting one back in March.

Image: Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin speaks at a vigil in Alabama on Oct. 23, 2019.
Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin speaks at a vigil in Alabama on Oct. 23, 2019.Joe Songer / The Birmingham News via AP file

The point of the early order, Woodfin said, was to buy the city time and stave off hospitalizations. But the Birmingham mandate in a county of more than 30 municipalities that chose different responses didn’t work. Jefferson County, where Birmingham is located, is now a hotspot, reporting nearly 300 new cases on Friday and its trend continues to point upward.

“You need coordination, and the most important thing is the political courage to really be listening to the recommendations of the actual health experts,” said Woodfin, who has repeatedly criticized Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey’s decisions during the pandemic. “I can tell you that government and elected officials at various levels have not done that.”

Ivey’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

The inconsistent policy decisions by states in the South and the West regarding how they are responding to the pandemic has helped cause the recent surge in cases, experts said.

“The idea that every mayor, every governor, every local official, should figure out their own pandemic response and what to do and not to do is crazy,” said Dr. Ashish Jha, the director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, who led research on Ebola and currently advises policymakers on the COVID-19 pandemic.

Jha explained the best way to respond to a pandemic is through national and state level guidance that is customized to local needs, which states ultimately did in the Northeast when they faced their spikes early on — though he noted that governors there waited a week or two too long to react.

But with the White House at war with its own health officials and the guidance put out by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, federal leadership during the current crisis appears absent and state governors facing hot spots in the South are not all actively working to fill the vacuum.

“When I look at what's happening in Texas, Florida and Georgia and other states, my take is these governors are not doing nearly enough to bring the virus under control,” Jha said. “And they are really looking at weeks and weeks of more infections, more hospitalizations and more deaths.”

John Cooper, the mayor of Nashville, warned at a press conference on Thursday in which he rolled back the city’s reopening that cases continue to be on the rise.

While the disease can be managed, he said, the vaccine is still far off.

“This is not over because we want it to be over,” Cooper said. “This is going to be a long, sustained, disciplined approach that’s going to require all of our efforts to get us back to normal.”

Cooper noted that the states with mask mandates had seen transmission and case rates decrease, and that some state governors who were skeptical of enforcing such ordinances have begun to follow suit — seemingly taking a small shot at Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, who said this week that he would not close any businesses or institute a mask mandate.

Lee’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Alabama and Montana issued such orders on Wednesday, however, joining recent adopters like Kentucky, Virginia and North Carolina as well as 22 other states that have similar requirements.

“More and more states are recognizing that within their jurisdictions they can only be as strong as their weakest link,” said the Nashville mayor, who has also decried the politicization of mask mandates and other coronavirus-related orders.

But the fight in Georgia between Kemp and Bottoms appears to be political, rather than looking to quell an outbreak that has killed more than 3,100 Georgians. The Atlanta mayor pointed out that the governor filed the lawsuit one day after she highlighted that President Donald Trump had violated her mask mandate when he visited the city Wednesday.

Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr pushed back against that characterization Thursday, saying in a statement, "The State of Georgia continues to urge citizens to wear masks. This lawsuit is about the rule of law."

Bottoms disagreed, stating multiple times that she felt that the Georgia governor had made a decision to put “politics over people,” which has led the state to have the fifth highest infection rate in the country.

Kemp has come under fire multiple times during the pandemic. He was widely criticized when he lifted his stay-at-home order at the end of April, shared earlier that month that he didn't know asymptomatic patients could infect others and state officials misrepresented COVID-19 case counts in May.

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Bottoms said this is another occasion that Kemp has cared more about political optics than the health realities of the virus. Other mayors in Georgia, including leaders in Augusta, Athens and Savannah, implemented similar mask mandates before Bottoms introduced hers. But Kemp only filed a lawsuit against Atlanta, and not the other cities.

Van Johnson, the mayor of Savannah and a Democrat, said on MSNBC that the latest conflict between the state and a local government is a waste of time and resources. Leaders at every level should be focused on the pandemic, not political battles, he said.

"We’re fighting coronavirus on one hand; on the other hand we’re fighting our own state,” he said.

“How can we take care of local needs," Johnson said at a Friday press conference, "when our state ties our hands behind our back and then says ‘Ignore the advice of experts?’”