What Atlanta’s face mask order means

The mayor signed an executive order on Wednesday. Here's what you need to know.

Atlanta coronavirus updates
Two pedestrians wait to cross Centennial Olympic Park Drive on April 4.

Photograph by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

On Wednesday, two days after she announced she had tested positive for COVID-19, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms signed an executive order requiring those within Atlanta city limits to wear face coverings when in public to help prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus. Atlanta’s order comes after Savannah, Athens, and East Point all implemented similar ordinances and follows the lead of several cities and states where COVID-19 cases are spiking.

In short, the order is simple—if you’re over the age of 10, you need to wear a mask while you’re out in public spaces. But just like the shelter-in-place orders from earlier in the pandemic, there are exceptions and nuances. Let’s break it down.

When and where do I have to wear a face covering?

  • Officially, whenever you are “inside a commercial entity or other building or space open to the public.” This would include retail stores, grocery stores, restaurants, coffee shops, doctor’s offices, malls, museums, attractions, public transportation, etc. Pretty much, if it’s a public space with other people around, put on a face covering.
  • Outdoor public spaces where social distancing isn’t possible

When do I not need to wear a face covering?

  • In your own home or apartment
  • In your own car
  • While you are eating or drinking in public spaces (including restaurants, cafes, etc.)
  • While smoking in public spaces
  • Outside as long as you are able to maintain social distance (so a jog in your neighborhood is probably fine)
  • In a swimming pool
  • While voting, assisting a voter, acting as a poll watcher, or administering an election
  • While speaking for a broadcast or to an audience (such as a press conference or news live shot)
  • It’s fine to remove a mask temporarily when needed for certain services, such as security screenings, visiting a bank, a dentist or doctor’s examination, etc.

Who has to wear a mask?
Anyone over the age of 10 who does not have a medical condition or disability that prevents them from wearing a mask.

Does this apply to the entire metro area?
No, this order only applies within Atlanta city limits and at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. However, much like the early shelter-in-place orders, the surrounding suburbs may adopt their own mask orders. East Point has already adopted such an order and Fairburn and Brookhaven have also passed orders. Decatur is set to vote on one Friday and Doraville and South Fulton are also considering them.

What constitutes a face covering?
Per the order, “a mask or cloth face covering over the nose and mouth.” This would include disposable masks, cloth masks, respirators, bandanas, scarves, neck gaiters, balaclavas, etc. Earlier this year, the CDC released this video on how to make an easy, no-sew covering.

Wait a minute. The state executive order signed by Governor Brian Kemp strongly encourages mask-wearing but doesn’t require it. I thought the cities weren’t allowed to issue contradicting orders?
When Savannah enacted its mask mandate last week, many speculated that Kemp would block it, as the state executive order does say that cities and counties cannot issue any orders that supersede the state’s. So while Kemp can threaten legal action against cities who implement a mask mandate, he hasn’t yet indicated he will. During a Tuesday call with local officials, Kemp urged them avoid mandates, instead using social media or other tools to encourage mask-wearing, but didn’t threaten legal action, according to the AJC. WABE also reports that in that same meeting, Kemp said it was “fine” that local governments had different opinions on response to the pandemic. While Kemp has been reluctant to issue a statewide mask mandate, he did tour the state last weekend, encouraging Georgians to wear face masks. He also frequently urges mask-wearing on his Twitter account.

What happens if I don’t wear a mask?
The order doesn’t say. Generally, the purpose of orders like these are to further emphasize the importance of wearing masks in public, not to write a bunch of citations. In Athens, a violation can come with a $25 to $100 fine depending on how many times someone has been cited, and Commissioner Tim Denson said that the intent of the order was “not to be punitive,” but “to ensure that people are wearing masks,” according to the Athens Banner-Herald. In Savannah, there is a $500 fine for not wearing a mask. In East Point, the fine is $75.

Why now? The pandemic has been going on for four months now.
Cases are once again spiking not only here in Atlanta, but nationwide. Reported cases in metro Atlanta are now higher than they’ve ever been. And so far, it shows no signs of slowing. We know masks limit the amount of droplets—and therefore, the amount of virus—expelled, so widespread mask-wearing is likely to help slow transmission of the virus.

You can read the full executive order here.