As of October 6, 2020, Georgia has 307,519 total documented COVID-19 cases and 7,028 deaths. The number of cases skyrocketed between July and August. 4,904 new cases were reported on July 10 alone. With this rise in cases, Georgia’s government should be doing everything they can to slow the spread. Unfortunately, they aren’t.
There is plenty of scientific evidence that proves wearing masks can help prevent spreading COVID-19. A study by Wei Lyu and George L. Wehby including data from 15 states as well as Washington D.C. shows that mask mandates led to a decrease in the daily COVID-19 growth rate. Researchers concluded that “The first five days after a mandate, the daily growth rate slowed by 0.9 percentage-points compared to the five days prior to the mandate; at three weeks, the daily growth rate had slowed by 2 percentage-points.”
Another study by Christopher Leffler, Edsel Ing, Joseph Lykins and Matthew C. Hogan looked at the COVID-19 death rates across 198 countries. Some of these countries were South Korea, the United States, and Japan. South Korea, for example, is famous for having low transmission despite a large population, high population density, and the virus being present there for longer. These researchers found that the countries with masks being the cultural norm or whose government policies favored mask wearing had lower death rates.
By now we are all familiar with arguments people make against masks. They claim mask mandates are taking away people’s “freedom,” and they cite breathing problems, for example. These arguments are insensitive to the 210,000 people who have died from COVID-19 in the United States alone and the 1.04 million worldwide because the statements reveal little care for other people’s lives. Are people so selfish that they cannot temporarily sacrifice their “freedom” for a small inconvenience if it means saving lives?
I have a brother-in-law who is immunocompromised due to congenital heart disease. He’s currently in hospice care, and if he got the virus his life could be shortened even more. My dad is an essential worker and has been working throughout the pandemic, so he has to worry about getting the virus. I have a great aunt who is like a grandmother to me in a nursing home where the virus infected more than half the residents, and sadly four residents have died. Thankfully, my great aunt wasn’t one of them, but I haven’t been able to see her since early March. By not wearing a mask, you are putting my family and everyone else’s at risk. You are disregarding the fact that over 1 million people have died.
Thankfully, our local government takes prevention seriously. Athens-Clarke County voted on and passed a mask mandate on July 7. Everyone over the age of 10 must wear a mask in public. Exceptions include personal vehicles, religious establishments, outdoor physical activity, or while eating, drinking or smoking. There is also a medical exception for people who can’t wear masks due to health conditions.
The mandate was effective because even though there was a spike in the first half of July, those cases spread before the commission passed the law. Since people generally start showing symptoms and test for COVID-19 one to two weeks after contracting the virus, this means the individuals included in the July 12 spike likely contracted the virus before the mandate could take effect. Approximately two weeks after the mandate the number of cases began to decline. Of course, it spiked again once college students returned.
Many cities and counties in Georgia are mandating masks, despite Governor Brian Kemp’s executive order that masks are “strongly encouraged” but not mandatory. Athens, Atlanta, Augusta, Savannah, Brookhaven, Dekalb County, Decatur, Fairburn, Kennesaw, Rome, and Smyrna are all cities or counties that have passed mask mandates.
Kemp sued the city of Atlanta on July 16 because they mandated masks in public and enforced other rules related to COVID-19 different from his own. He said that Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms lacked the authority to enforce these requirements as they went against his executive order. He later withdrew the lawsuit because, in his words, “In light of Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’ concession regarding the city’s Phase One roll-back plan and following her refusal in mediation to further negotiate a compromise, the Attorney General’s Office has filed to withdraw our pending lawsuit.” Perhaps he also realized that it was a waste of time and money in the middle of a pandemic causing devastating economic consequences.
Although Kemp’s executive order banned cities from implementing their own mask mandates, many mayors ignored him and still implemented their own policies.
All too predictably, the inconsistencies with mask policies then led to problems with the spread of COVID-19 in schools. Some counties in Georgia started in-person learning in August and didn’t mandate masks or even try to socially distance themselves. North Paulding High School, for example, did neither and shut down after the first week due to nine positive coronavirus cases from students and staff. This number increased to 35 after just a few days. After moving to digital learning for a week, they switched to a hybrid combination of in-person and virtual learning to slow the spread of the virus and make social distancing easier. The school system and its leaders were the subject of much ridicule online. For example, the school received backlash after suspending a student who posted the viral photo of a packed hallway. However, after parents and others fought it, the suspension was revoked.
The situation on college campuses is not much better. Before the University of Georgia reopened, cases in Athens were declining. However, with the return of college students, cases have risen to such a degree that Athens became the 4th-worst city in America for viral spread. Many students are simply disregarding the lives of people in Athens as they frequent bars and parties, not caring about the lives that they are affecting.
During the first week of classes at UGA, 821 new cases were reported in Athens, which was the highest one week total Athens Clarke County had at the time. As of September 21, Athens has 4,890 COVID-19 cases. By September 30, the school was at 3,820 total infections. Both UGA students and UGA itself are to blame for the sharp increase in coronavirus cases in our city over the last month. This is because UGA had a weak return plan. For example, they asked students to complete an optional online COVID-19 training before the first day of classes. They also have a website where you can report symptoms and positive tests, called DawgCheck. The website says students should fill it out every day before leaving dorms/homes, but it isn’t mandatory. The University did at least give each student two masks, but they are far behind other large flagship universities in daily testing, surely aiding the dangerous viral spread we have experienced locally.
We have to remember that wearing masks protects not only ourselves but also others. Simply wearing a mask helps protect high-risk populations such as immunocompromised individuals, those with underlying medical conditions such as heart disease and the elderly.
The fact that we even need a mask mandate is ridiculous as people should be wearing them without being forced. Essential workers put themselves at risk every day so that people can get what they need, so not wearing a mask is disrespectful to them. Wearing a mask is such a simple thing that can protect others and save lives, yet it has become politicized. It is yet another area of conflict in an already divided country. We need to come together on this issue to help the pandemic end sooner.