Updated to reflect Savannah-Chatham schools announcement of mask mandate.

This story also appeared in Georgia Recorder

Last year, Savannah became the first city in Georgia to require face masks as COVID-19 began to spread around the state. Now, as cases and hospitalizations are once more on the rise, Mayor Van Johnson is again requiring residents and visitors to mask up after ending the original order in May.

Savannah Mayor Van Johnson

“We’ve come too far and we’ve done so well, our businesses are booming and things are looking up, for us to go back here, but as far as I’m concerned, our first priority is to keep our citizens safe, to keep our employees safe, to keep our employees that are working in hospitality and tourism safe, and certainly keep our visitors safe,” Johnson said Monday.

Under the order, anyone in the city, regardless of vaccination status, will be required to wear a mask indoors in government buildings, hospitals and other areas when with people from outside their immediate household.

The mayor also acknowledged his order will not affect the Savannah-Chatham County School District, which serves children in Savannah and the surrounding county, but urged them to participate.

“We recognize that the city of Savannah has no jurisdiction over private schools and no jurisdiction over the Chatham County Board of Education, but we do have a great partnership, and I am asking their consideration to require a mask in schools that are in the city of Savannah,” Johnson said.

On Tuesday, in a press conference, Superintendent Ann Levett announced a mask mandate for all school staff, faculty and students.

The district, which includes more than 37,000 students and 5,600 employees, announced a mask-optional policy for school buildings early last month.

The district will continue to monitor transmission in the community and seek guidance from health professionals, Levett said.

‘A minor convenience to save a lot of lives’

The news of renewed mask requirements did not come as a surprise to Savannah resident Yolandra Shipp.

“I knew he was talking about it,” said Shipp, who runs a non-profit called Academic Girls Empowering for Success. “I was watching the numbers myself, so I saw that they were going back up. Just today I’ve spoken to three people who have contracted COVID in the last week.”

Chatham County has reported 571 new COVID-19 cases in the past two weeks, according to the state health department. In the two weeks before that, county officials reported 146 new cases.

Those numbers are alarming, said public health microbiologist Dr. Amber Schmidtke, and the number of people being sent to the hospital is even more so.

“The Savannah area and hospital region J, which includes Savannah, are seeing near vertical growth in their patient census for COVID-19,” she said. “That’s the only region where we’re seeing that so far, and what this means is that the numbers are increasing incredibly quickly, so that could, at some point, overwhelm the existing health care infrastructure. That’s one of the key motivations for reimposing a mask mandate, to try to preserve hospital capacity, not just for COVID, but for other medical needs as well.”

The vast majority of the people being hospitalized for COVID-19 are unvaccinated, Schmidtke said, and the rise in cases comes as Georgia’s vaccination rate has hit a slump near the bottom of the states in ranking. Chatham County’s vaccination rate — 41.7% — is above the statewide average of 39.9%.

Savannah is about 100 miles north of Florida, which accounts for one in five COVID-19 cases nationwide.

Shipp said she tries to mask up and limit outings, but she’s noticed a definite drop in the number of masked faces she sees.

“There has been a total decrease,” she said. “I really think you can count on one hand how many people do have one, and that’s not outside, that’s everywhere, you know, going grocery shopping or whatever, which I’ve limited in this last year and a half, how much as I go out as much as possible. But it was like, ‘Take them off,’ and everybody took them off.”

Mask mandates make medical sense in areas where cases are high and rising, Schmidtke said, and studies have found counties with mask requirements experience lower case rates than those that don’t require face coverings.

“Especially with the delta variant, those people who are infected with it carry 1,000 times more virus, it’s that much more important that they be masked,” she said. “And because so many people don’t realize that they’re sick or they brush off their symptoms as allergies or a cold, that’s why it makes more sense at this point, when case rates are as high as they are, to go ahead and just ask everyone to mask. It’s just a pretty minor inconvenience to save a whole lot of lives.”

Back to the old normal?

But for Savannah mom Miki Miller, the start of a mask mandate feels like a bad case of deja vu.

Savannah-Chatham County Schools had some of the most stringent COVID-19 requirements in the state, she said. That made life difficult for working parents.

“Our kids were let out for spring break, and never have gone back full time,” said Miller, who said she now commutes three hours a day to Hilton Head to work. “We were given two days a week here and there, then those were pulled from us. I actually lost jobs because I’m a single mom and had to be home with my son.”

Miller and her son were looking forward to a normal school year, but Johnson’s announcement puts a question mark over that prospect.

“We were all very hopeful and very excited when the school board announced that there would not be a mask requirement going into the next school year, and I have very, very little confidence that that will be the decision that is continued going forward,” she said.

Jess Norris, a Chatham County teacher, shares those concerns. She works in a K-8 school and is fully vaccinated.

She was looking forward to letting her students play on the playground and eat lunch in the cafeteria and seeing them in person rather than over Zoom.

“But now with the mayor saying Chatham County will be under a mandatory mask mandate, SCCPSS will probably follow suit,” she said. “They have already said there were issues with transportation and bus issues. So now my worry is they will try to push school back starting, that we will have to dual teach, et cetera, and trying to have kids who are not made to wear masks in general to wear masks at school is hard.”

A look into the future

It wasn’t immediately clear if Johnson’s announcement would trigger a chain reaction as it did last year, when other local leaders followed suit. A spokeswoman for the state’s county association said Monday afternoon she was unaware of any counties looking to bring back their mandate.

In Athens-Clarke County, which is home to the University of Georgia, a local mask requirement was tied to coronavirus cases. Current rates have stayed below the 100 new cases per 100,000 people over a two-week window, which is where local officials set the bar for requiring face coverings.

“Fortunately, we have been under that threshold for more than two months, though our numbers have tripled in the last month from the low point late this spring,” said Athens Mayor Kelly Girtz. “I will be making a continued push for residents (including new-to-campus students) to get vaccinated. It’s quick, easy, free, and can save your life or that of those around you.”

Dr. Anthony Fauci, who is President Joe Biden’s chief medical advisor, told CNN over the weekend that a recommendation for vaccinated people to wear masks is “under active consideration” by public health officials. The country, he said, is going in the “wrong direction” with the pandemic, pointing to the number of unvaccinated Americans.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has not reversed its May guidance that vaccinated people can safely go mask-free indoors.

In Georgia, Gov. Brian Kemp resisted calls early in the pandemic to issue a state-level mask mandate even as states like Alabama did and opted instead to “strongly encourage” them.

The governor sparred with local officials who wanted to go further but ultimately relented. Several cities – with Savannah in the lead – required masks in many public spaces, with places like Decatur only recently dropping the requirement. The governor told WSB-TV Monday he continues to oppose such mandates. 

“The governor has consistently urged Georgians to consult with their medical provider and get vaccinated,” Kemp’s spokeswoman, Mallory Blount, said in a statement. “The vaccines are the safest and most effective way for all Georgians to return to normal.”

Johnson, meanwhile, expressed frustration over the lingering resistance to precautions meant to stomp out the virus. His announcement Monday came in response to a rise in local COVID-19 cases, which the mayor blamed on the spread of the delta variant, a post-July 4th bump in cases, a relatively low vaccination rate and a public that has “let their guard down.”

“Masks are, I think, the lowest level of the first step we can take in encouraging vaccination,” Johnson said Monday. “It’s not fair to the 41% who did what we asked them to do.

“If you choose not to be vaccinated, then you choose to live with the consequences of not being vaccinated. If you choose not to wear a mask, then you choose to live with the consequences of not being masked, and that is why we’re here today,” he said.

Johnson’s order does not impose any bans on gatherings, but he hinted on Monday that more restrictions could be on the way if conditions do not improve.

“A lot of people have planned a lot of stuff for the remainder of the summer and the rest of the year,” he said. “We don’t want to go back there, so how we handle this place where we are now will determine how the rest of our year will turn out.”

Georgia Recorder is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity.

Before joining the Georgia Recorder, Ross Williams covered local and state government for the Marietta Daily Journal.Williams' reporting took him from City Hall to homeless camps, from the offices of business...

Jill Nolin has spent nearly 15 years reporting on state and local government in four states, focusing on policy and political stories and tracking public spending. She has spent the last five years chasing...