On Friday there were 68 patients hospitalized for treatment of COVID-19 in Albany at Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital and nine at Phoebe Sumter Medical Center Medical Center.

Dougherty County Commission Chairman Chris Cohilas, left, and Commissioner Anthony Jones wear masks during the only in-person commission meeting held since mid-March.

ALBANY — Face masks became a political debate of sorts this week as Dougherty County has experienced a resurgence in new COVID-19 cases — and deaths.

As of Friday afternoon, at least 167 county residents who tested positive for the novel coronavirus have died during the pandemic.

During a Friday coronavirus news conference, Albany City Commissioner Jon Howard floated the idea of the city and county issuing a requirement that individuals wear masks while in public. Howard also brought the idea up during a Tuesday City Commission meeting.

“I would be more than glad to see the city and county pursue an ordinance like Atlanta has done,” Howard told The Herald during a telephone interview. “It would be in the best interest. I think we need to do something.”

Of the 167 deaths, 36 have been residents of the 31705 Zip Code that includes east Albany and the majority, 78, lived in south Albany, according to Dougherty County Coroner Michael Fowler. Howard’s Ward I covers much of east Albany.

Howard said he is encouraged that some of the larger retailers, including Wal-Mart, now require masks for shoppers.

“You used to see mothers with two or three kids in stores shopping without having masks on,” said Howard, who said he knew a number of those who had died. “We’ve just got to educate, inform this community.

“It (COVID-19) does not discriminate. It does not have a ward.”

Producing public service announcements to encourage wearing masks is one way the governments could get out the message of the importance of wearing masks, Howard said.

Offering encouragement rather than the alternative of a mask requirement and issuing citations seems to be the better option, Dougherty County Commission Chairman Chris Cohilas said.

Making masks a requirement would be problematic in several ways, he said.

“My personal view on it is it’s not legal in light of the governor’s order,” Cohilas said during a telephone interview. “I think we could expend our energy in a better way.”

Turning law enforcement into the mask police would require a tremendous amount of resources, the chairman said. A blanket requirement also would be restrictive in that people out walking alone or riding a bicycle are not a threat to spread the disease.

There is no serious debate on the effectiveness of masks, which help lower the transmission of the novel coronavirus from person to person, he said. However, Cohilas said he would prefer to see more of what has been working, that is stores, restaurants and other businesses choosing to require masks on their premises.

“I think that’s more effective,” he said. “I also think we live in a free society. Dougherty County has organized, I would say, the largest mask drive in the state of Georgia. We have had 200,000 masks that we have distributed.”

The county plans in coming days to roll out additional steps to encourage individuals to wear masks while out in public and to maintain social distancing, Cohilas said.

“We have some very interesting initiatives,” he said. “We have some very interesting discussions going on.”

The city and county previously have cooperated in issuing joint resolutions on coronavirus-related measures, including a March state of emergency that was in place for several months and a requirement that all people entering government buildings wear masks, an ordinance that remains in place.

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