ALPHARETTA, Ga. — An emergency Alpharetta ordinance that would have required people to wear face coverings in all public areas where social distancing is not possible fell to a narrow defeat Aug. 24.
In a 4-3 vote, the City Council took issue with any governmental mandate that dictated how people should conduct their own affairs. The council majority also stated it was by no means universally proven that masks stop the spread of the deadly coronavirus that has killed more than 5,000 Georgians and close to 180,000 Americans this year.
Though the ordinance included provisions for exceptions, such as dining in restaurants and attending a polling place, it also allowed property owners to opt in or opt out of the requirement by posting signs.
Councilman Donald Mitchell called the proposal a 911 crapshoot.
“What we’ll get is the 911 system inundated with calls,” he said. “It all boils down to personal liberty and freedom.”
Public Safety Director John Robison said the police preference under the ordinance would be to not pursue the mask mandate itself but merely enforce a trespass citation if a business owner objects to a person who refuses to comply with store policy.
“A private business owner has a right to decide who comes into their business and [who] does not,” Robison said.
Still, Robison admitted enforcing a mask order would add a strain to the police department.
Council members also took potshots at enforcing some of the exceptions that mirrored Gov. Brian Kemp’s latest executive order, such as “bona fide” religious or medical reasons for not wearing a face covering.
Mayor Jim Gilvin said the most current statistical trends reported by health officials with Fulton County show that the infection rates are declining. He said there is conflicting information abut the efficacy of face masks against the virus.
Residents who spoke at the meeting said they feared the ordinance would be a nightmare to enforce and could possibly adversely affect people’s health.
The ordinance had strong backing from council members Jason Binder and Karen Richard, who both said they were convinced by leading health agencies that masks do have an effect on the spread of the virus.
Binder offered to table the proposal until a compromise of sorts could be worked out with other council members. That motion failed, teeing up a full vote on the ordinance as presented.
Council members voted 4-3 to deny the measure.
It was a disappointment for Binder.
“I think us being double the national average is not a good sign,” he said. “I think we cutting the number by 50 percent so my kids can go to school is…I’d do anything I can to help improve that situation, and I am listening to the experts.”
Richard said she does not see mask mandates as a civil liberties issue.
“I see this as a shared, personal sacrifice that we all should be doing so we can get our children back in school, so that we can keep our economy going, so that we don’t have to deal with another forced shutdown,” she said.
Councilman John Hipes, who was among the minority supporting the ordinance, said emails he received from constituents were almost evenly split. Right now, he said, there are 34 states that have a mask mandate in effect, some of them deeply conservative states.
“For all the folks who threatened to vote me out of office based on which way I voted,” Hipes said, “if you’re listening, I am my brother’s keeper.”