Commission passes mask mandate, narrowly approves homeless encampment

Aug 4, 2021

Mayor Kelly Girtz explains his tiebreaking vote to move ahead with a sanctioned homeless encampment in Athens.

The Athens-Clarke County Mayor and Commission last night gave unanimous approval to a new mask mandate for Athens-Clarke County, making ACC the third major municipality in the state to enact such a mandate in the face of skyrocketing COVID-19 cases.

Under the terms of the order, masks are required in all public spaces in the county, although business owners may choose to post a sign saying that the business does not consent to having the mask ordinance enforced. Violators of the mask ordinance will be warned, but subsequent violations could lead to a fine of up to $50. Masks are not required in one's vehicle or home, or while eating or drinking, as well as in other narrowly-defined situations.

The new mask mandate is tied to two factors - cases per 100,000 residents, and the countywide vaccination rate. Under the terms of the rule, the mask mandate will no longer be enforced if cases fall below 100 cases per 100,000 residents, or if the county's vaccination rate exceeds 80%.

The most recent data from the Georgia Department of Public Health indicates that the county has seen 257 cases per 100,000 residents over the past two weeks. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say that as of yesterday, less than 20 percent of Clarke County residents are full vaccinated.

Commissioners also narrowly approved a controversial measure to create a sanctioned encampment for the homeless on Barber Street. The plan drew hours of public comment, from both supporters of the plan and its detractors.

Those sharp divisions in the community were reflected among Commissioners, who split 5 – 5 on the plan, with Commissioners Mariah Parker, Melissa Link, Tim Denson, Jesse Houle, and Carol Myers voting yes, and Commissioners Patrick Davenport, Allison Wright, Russell Edwards, Ovita Thornton, and Mike Hamby opposing the measure. 

The tie vote created an uncommon scenario where Mayor Kelly Girtz had to break the tie. Girtz explained his vote in favor of the plan to his colleagues, calling the encampment part of a "necessary continuum of services," and a "safety valve" that would protect property owners and provide a way for homeless persons to, "transition with greater dignity."

Commissioners also tackled a proposed non-discrimination ordinance which came out of the Legislative Review Committee after over a year of work. After some wrangling about language relating to the definition of familial status, Commissioners unanimously adopted the new law, which is similar to ordinances passed in Decatur and Brookhaven.