July 16, 2020 / 3:47 PM / 24 days ago

Wear a mask? Georgia governor, mayors embroiled in latest coronavirus clash

July 16 (Reuters) - Officials in the U.S. state of Georgia were headed for a clash over masks to fight the spread of the coronavirus on Thursday after the Republican governor barred mayors from requiring residents to wear them.

Governor Brian Kemp issued an executive order late on Wednesday suspending local regulations requiring “face coverings, masks, face shields or any other personal protective equipment” in public.

The order said residents were “strongly encouraged” to wear face coverings in public. Kemp, a member of President Donald Trump’s Republican Party, suggested any order mandating masks would be too restrictive.

Savannah Mayor Van Johnson, who issued a mask mandate in his city on July 1, reacted swiftly.

“It is officially official. Governor Kemp does not give a damn about us. Every man and woman for himself/herself. Ignore the science and survive the best you can,” Johnson, a Democrat, wrote on Twitter.

“In Savannah, we will continue to keep the faith and follow the science. Masks will continue to be available!”

The mayor of Atlanta, Democrat Keisha Lance Bottoms, issued an order requiring masks in Georgia’s largest city on July 8.

COVID-19 cases have spiked across the American South and West after local officials started loosening economic and social restrictions aimed at slowing the spread of the virus.

Health experts say people should wear masks and adhere to social distancing to curb the spread of infection. Trump himself has been at odds with his own health officials’ advice on the matter, wearing a mask in public only once. Many of his party’s governors and local officials have followed his lead.

The University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation projected this week that the national death toll would exceed 224,000 by Nov. 1, but that 40,000 lives could be saved if nearly all Americans wore masks in public.

Trump is seeking re-election in November but faces mounting criticism - and falling opinion poll numbers - over his handling of the pandemic. The presumptive Democratic nominee, former Vice President Joe Biden, generally wears a mask.

Maryland Governor Larry Hogan, the Republican chair of the National Governors Association, on Thursday slammed Trump’s coronavirus response in a Washington Post opinion piece subtitled, “I’m a GOP (Republican) governor. Why didn’t Trump help my state with coronavirus testing?”

Hogan described how states scrambled to get help on testing, only to have Trump declare in early April it was not the federal government’s problem.

“It was hopeless, waiting around for him. Governors were being told that we were on our own. It was sink or swim,” Hogan wrote.

Across the country, new cases have been averaging around 60,000 a day. The total number has surpassed 3.5 million, by far the highest number of any country in the world, and more than 137,000 Americans have died from the illness to date.

Additional reporting by Lisa Shumaker; Writing by Sonya Hepinstall; Editing by Howard Goller

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