With community transmission rates rising, Savannah has reinstated its mask mandate to fight COVID-19.

Savannah Mayor Van Johnson wearing a mask and washing his hands

Savannah Mayor Van Johnson wears a mask and washes his hands at a mobile handwashing station early in the coronavirus pandemic. He reinstated the city's mask mandate on July 26, 2021, because of rising transmission.

Credit: file photo

Savannah reinstated its mask mandate on Monday as COVID-19 transmission rates rise. 

As of Friday, the Community Transmission Index, the rate of new cases over the past 14 days per 100,000 population, was 230 in Chatham County. Two weeks prior, it was 76.

Savannah Mayor Van Johnson said that means it’s time to mask up again.

“I’m just afraid that if we don’t, we’ll find ourselves in March and April 2020 all over again,” Johnson said.

Flanked by public health officials and representatives from the area’s hospitals, Johnson blamed rising transmission rates on three factors: the more transmissible delta variant, gatherings for the Fourth of July and people letting their guard down.

“They’ve stopped masking; they’ve stopped social distancing regardless of vaccination status,” Johnson said.

Just 42% of people in Chatham County are vaccinated against COVID-19.

Johnson and the health officials urged everyone 12 and older to get the vaccine. They stressed that while vaccinated people can still catch COVID, it’s usually much milder.

“Statistically, they are much more likely to have a very mild case and they're even less likely to wind up in the hospital,” Coastal Health District director Dr. Lawton Davis said of people who’ve been vaccinated. “And they almost never would die.”

Most recent hospitalizations and deaths are among unvaccinated people, officials said.

Davis, Johnson and other officials stressed that vaccines are available free and without appointment at county health departments, popup clinics, community events and many other places.

In reinstating the mask mandate, Johnson cited CDC guidance that even those fully vaccinated should consider wearing masks when transmission rates are high. And he stressed that children under 12 cannot yet get a coronavirus vaccine.

“While young people tend to have a less severe illness, if they get COVID, they can still get sick and die from this disease,” Johnson said. “And they can certainly contribute to community transmission.”

Students are due to return to Savannah-Chatham public schools next week.

The school district is outside the mayor’s jurisdiction, but he urged the school board to require masks for students and teachers.

Savannah was the first Georgia city to require masks last year as COVID-19 rates first began to rise, a move soon followed by other mayors around the state that put them at odds with Gov. Brian Kemp.

When asked for comment, the governor's office did not directly address Johnson's announcement Monday.

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

Kemp has pushed back against local officials imposing their own mask mandates throughout the pandemic. The Republican governor also firmly refused a statewide mask requirement. 

After local officials began implementing their own mandates last summer during the height of virus spread, Kemp signed an executive order that banned local governments from enacting rules that differed from the state's.

He also affirmed there would be no mask mandate for students and teachers returning to classrooms.

Kemp went on to sue Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and other city officials over its local mask mandate — a suit he later withdrew from court. In August 2020, the Republican governor backtracked slightly and allowed local governments to require masks with limitations.

When Kemp ended the state of public health emergency last month, it renewed conversation over whether or not local governments will again launch an effort to require masks as the rate of COVID-19 infections among unvaccinated residents rise.

Johnson acknowledged that a renewed mask mandate could be seen as punishing vaccinated people for the “inaction of the majority,” since most people in Chatham County are not yet vaccinated. 

But he stressed that transmission rates demand that people resume taking precautions.

“I’m asking people: 'Don’t complain, get vaccinated; don’t complain, wear a mask,'” Johnson said. “When the numbers indicate that it’s safe to remove the mandate, then we’ll remove the mandate.”