Commissioners Approve Earlier Last Call to Combat COVID

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

Last call will come a few hours earlier starting Friday after the Athens-Clarke County Commission approved an emergency measure shutting down bars at 10 p.m.

The ordinance moves up the last call for alcohol from 2 a.m. to 10 p.m., although restaurants can continue to serve food past that point, and bars have an additional 45 minutes to clear out. Retail alcohol sales are not affected and will still end at 11:30 p.m.

“This is not an easy decision to make, but it’s one we have to make. By all epidemiological standards, this whole state should be shut back down and quarantined again. The science is crystal clear that bars are super-spreader environments, primarily because people do gather closely face-to-face, and their inhibitions are down,” Commissioner Melissa Link said. “Alcohol does not give you COVID, but it leads to behavior that can give you COVID.”

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.

Clarke County has seen 1,200 new cases of COVID-19 since the start of July, and a recent New York Times story said UGA had more cases than all but two colleges in the nation. And that’s before in-person classes restart in August.

“We’re about to see 40,000 college students descend upon this town this weekend,” Link said. “We’ve got to do something.”

Commissioner Patrick Davenport was the lone “no” vote. He said the commission isn’t looking at the big picture, and the ordinance unfairly targets downtown.

“The people who are actually following CDC guidelines are being punished because of one or two bars,” he said.

Another measure passed Thursday addresses overcrowding in bars by essentially requiring them to have tables and chairs, and patrons to sit down while they drink instead of standing up. The county’s mask ordinance has an exception for eating or drinking, but that exception now only applies to people who are eating or drinking sitting down.

“If you need to get up to go to the restroom, you put your mask back on,” Link said. “If you need to get up to order another drink, you put your mask back on.”

The revised mask ordinance also clarifies that face coverings are required outdoors in situations where people can’t stay six feet apart, such as on a crowded sidewalk.

Dozens of angry bartenders who stand to lose tips left comments on Girtz’s Facebook page after he announced the last-call proposal Tuesday. Girtz said he’s urged Georgia’s House and Senate representatives to extend expanded unemployment benefits that expired this week.

Ultimately, though, the main concern for commissioners was public safety.

“Hopefully by bringing about an early last call for bar owners, it will bring about an early last call for COVID-19,” Commissioner Tim Denson said.