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Atlanta Mayor Bottoms defends issuing mask mandate: 'Our hospitals are being overrun'

Mayor Bottoms spoke one-on-one with 11Alive's Cheryl Preheim on Friday.

ATLANTA — Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms is not backing down in a challenge to Gov. Brian Kemp over the issue of mask mandates, saying her order to make them a requirement in the city this week has been met with wide approval from healthcare workers and will be defended.

Mayor Bottoms spoke one-on-one with 11Alive's Cheryl Preheim on Friday, touching on subjects that ranged from COVID-19 to recent violence in Atlanta to race.

On the subject of the pandemic, the mayor said "by and large people are very happy" about the mask mandate, which comes as hospitals fill up by the day in Georgia, amid runaway coronavirus case growth.

RELATED: Atlanta mayor claims governor 'not doing enough' for Georgia, calls actions during pandemic 'irresponsible'

"What we've heard repeatedly is wearing a mask is one of the best ways that we can slow the spread of COVID, and so it's been well-received by businesses as well, and I think it gives an opportunity for everyone to do their part," Bottoms said. "It's simply to protect yourselves and protect other people around you ... it's extremely important and the most unselfish thing you can do, and it has been very well-received because our hospitals are being overrun now." 

The mayor said that many city hospitals are being stretched thin.

"We're reaching capacity, ICU capacity in many of our hospitals. Grady Hospital has seen more COVID patients than they even saw in April," she said. "So this is a very challenging time for our healthcare professionals and (the mask mandate) been very well-received by them especially."

RELATED: Bottoms and Kemp | The different views of the two leaders

Gov. Kemp has insisted mask mandates are unenforceable. By law, cities are not technically able to go farther than the state law established by his executive orders, which do not require masks. It is unclear how or if he will exert his legal authority over city governments.

Bottoms said Atlanta would enforce its order, nonetheless, in lieu of the state taking stronger steps to curb the outbreak. 

Code enforcement officers will be authorized to enforce the mandate. Penalties for violations could include a citation, or, in strict enforcement, an arrest. If convicted, the sentence could include up to six months in jail or a $1,000 fine. 

"We can enforce it in the same way we can enforce any other city ordinance, and it also gives us an opportunity, especially in our airport and other city-owned facilities, to require that people wear a mask," she said. "And cities across our state have enacted this ordinance and it appears that the governor is one of the few elected officials in the state who, for whatever reason, doesn’t seem to think that masks should be mandatory. So we're gonna continue to do what we need to do on behalf of the people of Atlanta to keep them protected, because the reality is that our state opened up too soon and we are paying the price for it."

Bottoms criticized the governor for what she characterized as an inadequate state testing program, as well. She herself tested positive for COVID-19 earlier this week and said that she only got that result because she obtained a rapid-result test while waiting eight days for a previous test to return results.

"We didn’t get those results back, and it was not until almost a week later we were tested again, and by that time, three of us had tested positive. That’s the reason we can't get on the other side of COVID, that’s the reason our ICU beds are at capacity," she said. "If we want people to get tested then we have to get their results back to them quickly, so that they can change their patterns, so that they can contact people who they’ve been in close contact with and stop the spread of this virus."

The mayor also spoke about the violent July 4th weekend in Atlanta, which she said "was like nothing we've ever seen in our city in recent memory." More than 30 people were shot and five people died in a spate of gun violence.

Bottoms said this weekend "we are making sure that we have our officers out and visible" and asked the public to avoid large gatherings - both to prevent the spread of COVID and to preempt the kinds of flare-ups that ended in violence last weekend.

It comes amid a reckoning over policing, nationally and especially in Atlanta, where officers were fired and charged after incidents involving the police shooting death of Rayshard Brooks and Tasing of college students at a protest.

It has been a difficult situation to navigate for the mayor, trying to balance the demands of a generational protest movement with the collapsing morale of her own officers, who feel targeted and have protested back in subtle ways.

"In meeting with some student activists, I love what one of them said during our first meeting. He said, 'This can't be an us versus them conversation, it has to be a we conversation.' And that we means that we will get input from the public, that input is going to be important, but also getting input from our public safety personnel and our police officers on their thoughts of where perhaps their training needs to be clarified and how they can be better partners within our communities," she said. "Part of the 21st Century policing plan from the Obama-Biden administration is very clear - our officers should be guardians and not warriors within our communities."

Bottoms formed a task force on police reform that made a number of recommendations she has already moved to implement, and is currently drawing public feedback.

One problem, she said, was a lack of trust in the federal government to provide guidance.

"The unfortunate part with where we are in this country right now is normally you would be able to go to the Justice Department for guidance and assistance, and we won't be using this Justice Department for guidance and assistance," she said. "We're having to go pursue other areas and other experts for that assistance, but that being said we're still moving along."

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