ATLANTA — The largest city on Georgia's coast has reimposed a requirement that people wear masks in some public settings, citing a "steep and alarming rise" in cases of COVID-19.
Savannah Mayor Van Johnson made the announcement at a news conference Monday, saying people now must wear masks any time they are indoors with people who are not members of their immediate families.
However, the order says it only applies to city buildings, childcare centers, hospitals, public transit and tourism vehicles. The order says masks are "strongly advised" in businesses and "highly recommended" during religious services. That's less strict than Savannah's earlier order.
Also Monday, the Bibb County school district became the latest Georgia district to announce that all students and staff must wear masks when indoors, regardless of vaccination status. Other Georgia school districts taking that position include DeKalb County, Clayton County, Atlanta, Rockdale County and Decatur.
More than 100 of Georgia's 159 counties are listed as having high transmission based on last week's data.
The state's seven-day average of cases rose back above 2,000 for the first time since March 10 after bottoming out below 400 in late June. The daily case rate peaked at nearly 9,500 in January. Infection rates are worst among adults aged 30 to 59. The number of COVID-19 patients hospitalized, at about 1,400, is also the highest since March.
Georgia has recorded more than 1.1 million cases of COVID-19 and more than 21,000 deaths. Deaths have not yet risen significantly in the current surge.
"As COVID-19 cases are rising in all 50 states, I want to encourage all Georgians to talk with their doctor and get vaccinated," Gov. Brian Kemp tweeted Monday.
Georgia remains among the eight lowest states by vaccination rate, according to federal data
Johnson, Savannah's mayor, said his order does not apply to schools and colleges, but called on them to require masks, saying rates of COVID-19 have roughly tripled in Chatham County in the last two weeks. Savannah-Chatham public schools said it would stay mask-optional for now, but the district is requiring masks on school buses.
The county saw a big spike in new cases at the end of last week, according to state Department of Public Health data, pushing transmission rates to levels last seen in March. Reported new cases are roughly nine times where they were when they bottomed out in late June.
Statewide case rates in Georgia are almost five times as high as they were in late June.
Johnson said the delta variant of COVID-19, low vaccination rates and large gatherings over the July 4 holiday may be contributing to the rise.
"Many people have just let their guard down," Johnson said. "They've stopped masking, they've stopped social distancing regardless of vaccination status."
Savannah was the first Georgia city to impose a mask mandate last year. In May, it dropped the requirement but advised unvaccinated people and medically vulnerable people to keep wearing masks.
"None of us want to take a backward step in our return to normalcy, but wearing a mask is the simple, easy, most inexpensive thing we can do to protect ourselves and those around us," the first-term mayor said.
For now, Johnson said the city will allow large outdoor events to continue, as long as organizers take safety precautions.
The Harlem Globetrotters are scheduled to perform Wednesday in Savannah's Martin Luther King Jr. Arena. The show will go on, but masks will now be required for anyone who attends as well as staff members, said Yasmeen Badich, vice president of marketing for the arena.
Some other local governments are also requiring masks in government buildings. Liberty County and its county seat of Hinesville, which adjoin Fort Stewart south of Savannah, have reimposed such rules. The county closed indoor recreation centers.
As of Thursday, 46% of Chatham County residents had received at least one dose of a vaccine, just above Georgia's 45% rate. People 12 and older are eligible to be vaccinated.
"Are we effectively punishing those who did the right thing, who took the vaccine? And the answer is yes, we probably are," Johnson said. "But the minority is being punished because of the inaction of the majority."
Bibb County Superintendent Curtis Jones said he was reimposing a mask order based on transmission rates and guidance from public health authorities, saying the move was needed to make sure students could attend class in person.
"Everyone must do their part to keep students and staff safe so we can have a normal school year," Jones said in a statement.