AN alarming increase in local and regional infection rates from COVID-19 prompted a special Savannah City Council meeting today, in which Mayor Van Johnson proposed making it mandatory to wear a mask in public.
“I’m wishing to, at least as an emergency, order the mandatory use of face coverings when in a public space,” Johnson said.
“As these numbers continue to go up, I just refuse to sit by idle and not be able to do something to slow the spread.”
City Attorney Bates Lovett told the Mayor directly, “I think you have the authority to do that.”
Alderwoman Kesha Gibson-Carter, however, warned of the issues surrounding asking police to enforce such an order in a free society, where relationships between police and the public are already tense.
“We should be mindful of… who wearing a mask may be difficult for,” she said, and “what are the implications if you’re caught without a mask. I would hate for us to make a blanket rule whereby all citizens have to wear masks and it becomes complicated. We’re in a time and space where there are concerns about police officers approaching [people] and what constitutes that engagement.”
No vote was taken, and presumably the issue will come before Council at a later date, should it be pursued in earnest.
The discussion came in the wake of rapidly spiking infection numbers in Chatham County, and an ever-growing list of local establishments which have voluntarily closed due to staff testing positive.
As of this writing, the list includes The 5 Spot, Spanky’s Southside, the Shellhouse, Molly McGuire’s, the Starbucks on Victory Drive, and The Rail Pub.
“If you go back 110-111 days when our numbers were nothing like they are now… now we have restaurants closing because they've had infections,” Johnson said.
“We’re worse off now than when this thing started, when we said it was bad.”
The situation mirrors what is going on in many other states which attempted to reopen around Memorial Day weekend, including neighboring states Florida, Tennessee, and the Carolinas.
Gibson–Carter asked if the City could provide any help to businesses that choose to voluntarily close.
“The City doesn’t mandate anyone to close,” the Mayor answered. “I don’t believe the City has the wherewithal to provide any assistance to a business that does close.”
Dr. Lawton Davis, Health Director of the Coastal Health District, confirmed that “We have not asked anybody to close, those that have closed have done so voluntarily.”
Davis told Council that “the average number of daily cases is higher now than it has been since this thing began.”
That, Davis said, “reflects demand for testing that has increased — as you do more tests you'll find more cases. However the percentage of tests that are positive are also increasing. So you can't just say it’s purely because of more tests.”
Davis said the main issue is that people “are not wearing masks as often as before, and huddling up and congregating… the general public, after two and a half months, is tired of being socially responsible and practicing social distancing. They are ready to go on with their lives.”
The new development, Davis said, it that “it appears that a significant percentage of positive cases are in younger individuals who are completely asymptomatic, or mostly asymptomatic.”
Most of these new patients, he says, have only mild symptoms.
Pushing back against what he calls incorrect reports that local hospitals are currently at capacity, Davis said “The use of ventilators is lower than it was initially, even though the average number of positive cases is higher than it’s ever been before.”
City Manager Pat Monahan said that while for a time it appeared the City could optimistically enter Phase Two of its reopening protocol for staff and City services, that plan has been rendered moot because of the spike in cases.
“Two weeks ago the sustained average began its current upward swing” and is now three times the threshold required to go to Phase Two.
Therefore, current City safeguards will remain in place, including mandatory mask usage in City facilities and temperature checks for employees and customers to enter City facilities.
“Summer programs may be canceled if the numbers don’t improve,” Monahan said.