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No More Mr. Nice Mayor
Savannah police instructed to crack down on people ignoring COVID-19 face-mask orders
Savannah visitors on River Street ignore Mayor Johnson’s emergency order to wear face masks in public spaces. - photo by Nick Robertson

SAVANNAH MAYOR Van Johnson is fed up with people ignoring his emergency orders mandating the use of face masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

The mayor expressed his dismay for businesses and individuals that are not taking the pandemic seriously. Johnson is taking action to crack down on offenders by ordering the Savannah Police Department to start issuing citations to anyone flouting his coronavirus-safety protocols.

“I was discouraged, frustrated, and honestly appalled by the lack of social distancing I saw in my city. The blatant disregard for the health and safety of others was on full display at several big events, especially downtown. There were giant crowds and relatively few people wearing masks,” Johnson said during a Dec. 1 press conference.

Johnson decided to take action after visiting the opening-weekend events of the Plant Riverside Christmas Market in late November.

“I personally was downtown and witnessed this behavior at Plant Riverside, where there were hundreds, if not thousands, of people at an event that was publicly advertised, with no real social distancing,” Johnson said, noting that while his face-mask mandate does not technically apply to the interior of private businesses, as soon as patrons step outside they must abide by Savannah’s rules. “The city owns the right of ways and the park, and we will more aggressively regulate the activities in those areas.”

In response to Johnson’s comments on the Christmas Market event, a Plant Riverside spokesperson provided a statement asserting that COVID-19 precautions are in place at the facility.

“The health and wellness of guests and associates is our top priority and we are following CDC guidelines. Face coverings are required for guests and associates in all public indoor areas, rigorous cleaning protocols have been increased, sanitizer stations have been added, and signage has been posted to remind the public of social distancing protocols,” said the statement. “We have been and will remain diligent to put safety first.”

However, this was not the only incident that piqued Johnson’s frustration. The mayor said that some leaders in local tourism are not accepting responsibility for keeping Savannah safe during the ongoing pandemic.

“I specifically reject the position of some tourism officials that I’ve heard recently say that they have no role to play in this, some foreign, crazy assertion the tourism community can casually engage in this when they want to,” said the mayor.

“We are in this together. If Savannah is going to get through this with minimal damage, it’s going to take the help of everyone − every hotel, every restaurant, every bar, every club, every tour, every business − and we want people to stop complaining and encourage people and encourage businesses to do better,” Johnson said.

According to the Georgia Department of Public Health, the number of Chatham County’s confirmed COVID-19 cases has risen in recent weeks. This increase led to Johnson requesting that Georgia Governor Brian Kemp issue a statewide face-mask mandate.

“I’ll begin asking publicly, and will ask today in writing, for Governor Kemp to do the right thing, do the smart thing, do the thing that is recommended across the world by healthcare professionals, and mandate masks for all Georgians in public and private places,” said Johnson.

In a sarcasm-laced comment aimed at those who are skeptical that face masks can help prevent the spread of COVID-19, Johnson compared the use of a mask to the use of a parachute.

“Do you need a study to tell you that using a parachute will save your life? Numerous observations will lead most to conclude that one had a better chance of survival should one find oneself free-falling from an airplane if one is wearing and properly deploys a parachute, versus those who do not have a parachute,” Johnson quipped. “Certainly, it would not be 100% effective, and certainly one should receive proper training, but the odds of survival and/or experiencing reduced injury is certainly improved with the use of a parachute.”

Johnson has requested Savannah Police Chief Roy Minter and Savannah City Manager Michael Brown to step up disciplinary action for anyone who does not comply with the city’s COVID-19 ordinances. Brown expressed his agreement with Johnson’s more forceful stance, and says he does not want compliance to depend solely on law enforcement.

“The police are not heavy-handed. That’s not our role,” Brown said. “We have a lot of resources, but there are not enough resources to control everybody’s behavior in all of our public spaces, so we commit ourselves to enforce, but we also ask for cooperation.”

Following up on Brown’s comments, Minter said that most people in Savannah are not actively rebelling against Johnson’s face-mask mandate.

“Generally, when we’re out there, we’re getting 100% compliance from folks,” Minter said. “If we see them without a mask, we’re asking them, ‘Hey, you need to have a mask on.’ A lot of times the mask mysteriously appears out of their pocket.”