ATLANTA — Hours after Gov. Brian Kemp appeared at a campaign rally full of hundreds of unmasked Georgians crammed in close quarters outside a Forsyth County barn, he renewed a coronavirus order that bans gatherings larger than 50 people.
It's not the first time Kemp didn't abide by his own restrictions at a political stop. He also recently headlined an event for U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler inside a packed Gwinnett County restaurant that's featured in one of her latest TV ads.
The governor has vented at local authorities for failing to enforce the state's coronavirus guidelines, encased in an order that stretches across 51 pages. But critics say his appearance at crowded campaign events shows he's flouting the restrictions, too.
"I think there are times when he wants to do the right thing. But as soon as he slips into Campaign Kemp, it's a whole different story," said Pallavi Purkayastha, a Democratic strategist who was aghast at pictures of Tuesday's rally. "That shows you the duality of who he can be as a governor and who he is as a Republican candidate."
In a statement, Kemp's office avoided responding directly, instead invoking his "Do Four Things for Fall" campaign: "Wear are a mask, watch your distance, wash your hands and follow the executive order." Some of which wasn't done at the political rallies.
His spokesman didn't address his appearance at crowded events, but noted that the governor wore a mask and remained socially distanced.
Other Georgia Republicans have countered with criticism of large-scale protests demanding social justice and an end to police brutality that swept through Atlanta this summer — nightly events that were not shut down by authorities despite coronavirus limits.
It also highlights a broader rift between Democrats and Republicans as campaign activity ratchets up during a pandemic that's sickened 300,000 Georgians and killed 6,000.
Most Georgia Democrats have yet to return to the campaign trail and instead rely on online rallies and digital appeals to reach voters. Republicans resumed in-person events in June, and President Donald Trump's campaign has touted its legion of door-to-door canvassers in Georgia as one of its greatest strengths.
The divide also plays into presidential politics. The Las Vegas suburb of Henderson fined the owner of a manufacturing plant where Trump held his first indoor campaign rally since June, saying it violated Gov. Steve Sisolak's coronavirus directives that prohibit large gatherings.
Trump's campaign said attendees were screened for fevers before the rally and were encouraged to wear masks, while the president tweeted a broadside at the Democratic governor, complaining without evidence of a "rigged election."
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has attended more than a dozen Republican events across the state since June, and at each one members of the audience had their temperature screened and were offered masks.
That was the case Tuesday, when hundreds of Trump supporters from across metro Atlanta filed into rows of folding chairs outside the Reid Barn in Forsyth County to hear Eric Trump and several prominent pastors fire up evangelical voters.
Still, only a fraction of the crowd wore masks at the outdoor venue, and several who did not told the AJC they believed the virus fears were overblown.
"I think the rules are a lot of hype," said Sabrina Mao of east Cobb. "We aren't hearing the full truth about the disease. But I felt safe there today."
Georgia once had one of the nation's highest rates of the disease, but the state has made recent gains. The number of new daily coronavirus cases has steadily declined along with the hospitalization rate. Kemp's latest order paves the way for a resumption of in-person nursing home visits.
But public health experts warn the improvements can be erased without vigilance and more drastic action. The latest White House coronavirus task force report, released this week by Trump's top science advisers, encourages Georgia to limit gatherings to 15 or fewer people.
Kemp opposes a statewide mask mandate, but has for months urged Georgians to wear face coverings and embarked on two statewide barnstorming tours to promote their usage.
U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, who is challenging Loeffler, has also staged several tours of the state, donning a mask until it's time to speak.
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At a recent stop in Collins' hometown of Gainesville, more than 100 supporters crammed into a downtown restaurant to hear from some of his top allies. Most weren't wearing masks.
"You can only do as much as you can," he said. "We try to wear a mask. Outside of the Atlanta area, where we have more outdoor venues, people are much more open to meeting. But we're trying to do everything we can to keep people safe."
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His campaign spokesman Dan McLagan took a harder tack, drawing a comparison between the summer's demonstrations and critiques of Republican rallies, though there's little scientific evidence that the protests brought a surge in the disease.
"The media and the left measure viral danger on a political sliding scale — riots and protests are safe and may even cure your sciatica but GOP events will kill you dead and give your children diabetes," he said.
Democrats, meanwhile, worried the striking images of Republicans speaking to large, tightly-packed crowds sends a conflicting and confusing message to Georgians.
"Of course he (Kemp) is breaking his rules for a political rally. That proves that every response he's made has been completely political and not science-based," said state Rep. Erick Allen, D-Smyrna.
"He has not handled this pandemic responsibly from the beginning. Why should we expect anything differently?"
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