Commission Will Vote Thursday on Earlier Last Call

The scene outside a Broad Street student bar on a June evening. Credit: Michael Engleman

Athens-Clarke County Mayor Kelly Girtz has scheduled a called meeting Thursday for the commission to vote on moving up last call for alcohol sales at bars and restaurants.

“It’s good timing, with the undergrads coming back into town, and we just want to keep everybody safe,” Girtz said. Classes start at UGA on Aug. 20.

The measure would move last call from 2 a.m. to 9 p.m. Restaurants would be allowed to continue serving food after 9 p.m.

Bars have been blamed for “superspreader” events, where a coronavirus carrier infects many others. For example, nearly 200 cases of COVID-19 were traced back to one bar in East Lancing, home to Michigan State University.

“People are unmasked. They’re talking loudly. They’ve had a few drinks. They’re very close. They’re singing and laughing, and that’s precisely how the virus is spreading,” Commissioner Melissa Link said at a July 6 meeting where the commission approved an ordinance requiring masks in public places but exempts people who are eating and drinking.

Gov. Brian Kemp allowed bars to reopen June 1 with capacity limits and other restrictions, but Link and others say they’re not always being observed or enforced, especially at student-oriented bars.

Several cities in North Carolina, including the college town of Chapel Hill, recently curbed alcohol sales to slow the recent spike in COVID-19 cases among young people, who can spread the disease to more vulnerable populations even if they themselves are asymptomatic or only experience a mild case. At least 14 states that had reopened bars have now closed them again after seeing rising COVID numbers, according to USA Today.

“Bars: really not good, really not good,” national public health expert Anthony Fauci said last month. “Congregation at a bar, inside, is bad news. We really have got to stop that.”

Commissioner Russell Edwards, who has been one of the loudest voices pushing for stronger measures to fight the pandemic, said he believes there at least eight votes on the 10-member commission to pass the earlier last call. If it does pass, it would take effect Friday, according to Girtz.

Girtz said that local bar owners have told him that they’re not enthusiastic about the plan, but they understand why it’s necessary.

Also Thursday, the commission will vote on relaxing the county’s open container law to allow servers to walk in the public right-of-way, such as on a sidewalk, to deliver alcoholic beverages to patrons seated outside.

At the commission’s regularly scheduled Aug. 4 meeting, the body will vote on another measure creating more space for dining and drinking outdoors, where it’s safer than inside if social distancing is maintained. Bars and restaurants would be allowed to lease on-street parking spaces to set up tables. The tables would be required to be at least six feet apart, with no standing allowed, Girtz said.