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Commission Returns Last Call to 2 a.m.

The downtown bar scene was likely a COVID-19 "superspreader" last summer, but numbers are now back down. Credit: Adria Carpenter/file

The Athens-Clarke County Commission voted Tuesday night to move last call at local bars back to 2 a.m. effective Thursday, May 20.

The vote came nearly 10 months after the commission moved last call up to 10 p.m. in an effort to curb late-night crowds downtown amidst a sharp spike in COVID-19 infections. After a group of bar owners filed a lawsuit, ACC settled on an 11:30 p.m. compromise.

A couple of commissioners had floated the idea of keeping the earlier last call to ease the burden on police. But ACCPD supported the return to a later last call. 

“They feel like it will be a benefit to them moving back the time because you don’t get the mixture of the college crowd downtown at the same time as the evening dinner crowd,” said county Attorney Judd Drake.

So did bar owners, of course, although one business owner contacted commissioners to say they would no longer be eligible for a federal employee retention tax credit if pandemic-related restrictions are lifted. 

“I just feel like we need a little time to study this and do some outreach to our downtown business owners to find out what the impact will be,” Commissioner Melissa Link said.

Mayor Kelly Girtz said he recently met with 30 bar owners, and none of them were using that particular program.

Commissioner Mariah Parker said she was “disappointed” that Girtz only met with bar owners and not employees. She said they’re happy to get back to work, but that they have concerns about safety, and that the commission should be considering requiring concessions like hazard pay. 

“In the future we really need to listen to these folks who keep these businesses open,” Parker said.

Several commissioners said that labor rights in the service industry need to be addressed, but it would be better to send those issues through the committee process. Parker eventually agreed with that approach. 

“Right now, with the need for people to get back to work, it would do more harm than good,” Commissioner Jesse Houle said.

Link and Commissioner Russell Edwards also said ACC should have won more concessions. 

Link said that proof of vaccination should be required to enter a bar. 

“We need to provide some incentive for [college students] to get the vaccine,” she said. “UGA isn’t doing enough.”

The ordinance passed Tuesday does require the bar owners who sued ACC last year to cooperate with the county health department on promoting a mass vaccination event. But Edwards said they should be required to host vaccination events for their customers and staff.

“Now I’m reading this settlement, and it’s just making a social media post,” he said. “This falls well short of my expectation here.”

Edwards proposed tabling the discussion for 30 days, which Link also supported. After that motion failed, the agreement was approved unanimously as originally written.

While the lifting of state restrictions and the return of UGA students last summer led to a huge spike in COVID-19 cases, the infection rate is now lower than it’s been since last June.