During a Special Called meeting July 9, City of Hinesville Mayor and Council passed an Executive Order requiring face coverings or masks be worn in public, within the City limits, which went into effect this past Saturday.
The motion was approved after nearly two hours of going back and forth on whether the mandate was necessary or enforceable.
The order states that all persons entering any building, restaurant, retail establishment of any kind, salons, grocery stores and pharmacies within the city limits must wear a mask or face covering while inside while inside the building or while in any area where the general public is allowed. Employees of businesses within the city must also wear face coverings, per the order.
City Manager Kenneth Howard said the city planned to offer special incentives to help businesses within the city limits to be able to comply with the order. Immediately following the order, the city sent letters and public safety information to local business owners to post at their locations. On Monday the city announced small grant loans solely intended to help small businesses continue operations and keep residents employed in a safe environment.
The order does include some exemptions due to age, underlying health issues or any person who is unable to wear one safely.
During the meeting Council members questioned how police would determine if a violator had a legitimate medical excuse. They questioned if it was legal to ask anyone about their medical history.
“When you say underlying health conditions, that’s broad,” Councilwoman Diana Reid said. “Underlying health conditions like what?”
“That would prevent them to comfortably wear a mask and risk their health,” City Manager Kenneth Howard replied.
“So we would have to pretty much take people at their word,” Councilman Keith Jenkins, who is also a Liberty County Sheriff’s Deputy said.
“Yes,” City attorney Linnie Darden replied. “And If I may add…we are not emphasizing punishment. The emphasis here is education and voluntary compliance.”
“Okay because I don’t want anyone to be harassed or feel harassed because they aren’t wearing a mask,” Councilwoman Vicky Nelson said. “I would hate to see that happen.”
“That is not the intent,” Mayor Brown replied.
They also questioned how the order would be enforced. Hinesville Police Chief Bill Kirkendall addressed the issue saying the focus of his department would be to help educate the public on the importance of wearing masks. He said his officers will carry extra masks to distribute to folks they encounter who may not have a mask or face covering on hand.
Per the order, face coverings are not required when driving in your personal vehicle, when a person is alone in an enclosed space such as their home, during physical activity provided they maintain the standard six-foot distance from others, while eating, drinking or smoking, children under 10 years of age, during certain personal services and if it aggravates a current health condition.
According to the order, “A person who fails to comply with any mandatory provision of this Order shall be deemed guilty of a civil infraction punishable by a fine not to exceed $1,000.”
Rather than citations and fines, the goal is education and voluntary compliance, with some exceptions to wearing masks in place, City PR Manager Whitney Morris-Reed said. She said those exceptions are found in paragraphs 4 and 5 on page two.
As news of the order circulated on social media, the community’s response was deeply divided among those who praised the motion, those who felt it violated their rights and vowed to shop elsewhere, and those who felt the measure came much too late in response to the spiking number of COVID-19 cases in the past weeks.
“Masks are good and I think people should be wearing masks,” Councilman Karl Riles said during the meeting and before the motion was passed. “However I don’t believe that it is our job and enforce that all citizens wear masks whether they want to or not. I don’t believe that is our business as a city government. I don’t think we should be telling businesses how to run their business….How do we enforce this? Is it enforceable?”
While the order went into effect over the weekend it does seem to go against Governor Brian Kemp’s Executive Order. Kemp’s order prevented local municipalities from creating stronger provisions than those that are in his emergency order. Kemp told the Atlantic Journal Constitution last Thursday that the recent face covering orders passed in Atlanta, Savannah and several other municipalities are “unenforceable.”
But Kemp has not pursued any action, so far, against the cities that have passed the orders which includes Savannah and Atlanta.
When questioned about whether the order went against Kemp’s directives, City Mayor Allen Brown said the City Manager and City Attorney are currently researching the matter but in the meantime, “We will proceed with our plan and between now and the early part of next week we will determine whether or not that affects us and we will act accordingly.”
Brown once again emphasized that their main goal is to educate and encourage the public to wear masks to slow down the spread of the disease.
The order is in effect until Aug. 11.