Atlanta reinstates indoor mask mandate as omicron spreads

In this Jan. 10, 2020, file photo, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms speaks in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms has reinstated a mask requirement inside stores and other businesses in the city. Bottoms said Tuesday, Dec. 21, 2021 she was responding to rising COVID-19 infections, the omicron variant and guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette via AP, File

ATLANTA (AP) - Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms on Tuesday reinstated a mask requirement inside stores and other businesses in the city due to rising COVID-19 infections and the emergence of the extraordinarily contagious omicron variant, which has quickly become the dominant version of the virus in the U.S.

The move came as infections in Georgia continued to sprint upward, rising to nearly 6,000 cases detected on Tuesday. The state's seven-day average of infections has more than doubled in less than a week.

Bottoms cited guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for her decision.

"The CDC has designated Fulton and DeKalb counties as areas of high transmission for the COVID-19 virus," the mayor said in a statement. "Given this recent surge across the Atlanta area, and based upon the counsel from public health professionals, I am reinstating the citywide mask mandate."

People who fail to wear a mask indoors could face a fine of $50 for a second offense. Bottoms had lifted the previous mask mandate last month.

Republican Gov. Brian Kemp sued Atlanta over its mask mandate and restrictions on businesses that Bottoms recommended in 2020 after Kemp lifted statewide business restrictions. Kemp later dropped the suit, but has continued to maintain that mask and vaccine mandates are undesirable.

"These mandates only create division and unnecessarily divert critical resources," Kemp spokesperson Katie Byrd said Tuesday. "Gov. Kemp is fully vaccinated and boosted, and he will continue to urge Georgians to talk with their doctor about the benefits of getting the vaccine or receiving their booster shot. Ultimately, he feels that we must trust our citizens to do what's right for themselves and their families."

Kemp stood by his position as his own Department of Public Health renewed recommendations for people to get vaccinated and seek a booster dose, wear masks in public indoor settings, avoid crowded and poorly ventilated spaces and keep 6 feet away from people outside their own households.

Georgia officials also urged people to get tested if they display symptoms, are exposed to someone with COVID-19, or if they are going to gather indoors with others.

Kemp and Attorney General Chris Carr also announced Georgia had joined a lawsuit with 23 other states seeking to strike down a federal requirement for Head Start workers to get vaccinated and wear masks. The suit concerning the federally funded preschool program is the fourth such suit Georgia has filed or joined against federal COVID-19 mandates in recent weeks.

The number of patients hospitalized with COVID-19 has risen almost 50% in Georgia in the last month, with nearly 1,250 patients hospitalized statewide Tuesday with the respiratory illness. That's well below the record of roughly 6,000 that was reached in early September at the peak of Georgia's fourth surge of virus cases. But it's well above the recent low of 824 patients recorded on Nov. 22.

Some hospitals told WSB-TV on Tuesday that they are already filling up. Patients were waiting in emergency rooms for beds at Grady Memorial Hospital in downtown Atlanta and Northeast Georgia Health System in Gainesville. More than a dozen other hospitals were turning away ambulances from their emergency rooms, according to a state tracking system.

Dr. Robert Jansen, chief medical officer of Grady Memorial Hospital, said growth in admitted COVID-19 patients is "exponential."

"When you have so many people getting infected, the number of people requiring hospitalization is going up significantly," Jansen said.

Bottoms' latest mask requirement came after Atlanta mayor-elect Andre Dickens said a rapid test Monday showed he had COVID-19. Dickens, who said he was fully vaccinated, was isolating, although he reported feeling well and having mild symptoms.