A lot of things are on hold during this coronavirus pandemic, but it’s still a free country, and our God-given right to lick eyeballs after 10 p.m. shall not be abridged.
With COVID-19 cases spiking, the return of UGA students looming and reports of big crowds at downtown bars already, the Athens-Clarke County Commission passed an emergency ordinance July 30 moving last call for alcohol at bars and restaurants from 2 a.m. to 10 p.m. The commission also updated its mask ordinance to require bar patrons to wear masks whenever they’re not seated.
“I’ve been there. We’ve all been there,” Commissioner Melissa Link said. “You’re out at a bar, you’re up in each others’ faces, you’re hugging, you’re kissing, you’re licking each others’ eyeballs, whatever you do, but we’ve got to lay down some rules that we can’t do that in these times. Alcohol does not give you COVID, but breathing in each others’ faces does give you COVID.”
The requirement that people who remove their masks to eat or drink remain seated was proposed by Link. Commissioner Tim Denson wondered if that applied to someone walking down the street eating a sandwich. Mayor Kelly Girtz reminded him that the ordinance includes an exception for outdoor recreation.
“If I’m eating a foot-long hotdog, we can count that as exercise now?” Denson said.
“They have contests around that,” Girtz replied. “It’s nearly an Olympic sport.”
Commissioner Allison Wright wondered if ACC wasn’t wandering further into Gov. Brian Kemp’s crosshairs. “We’re in the hot seat as it is,” she said. “This seems like we’re going into the big flames”
Wright’s concerns proved prescient. The next morning, libertarian-leaning local attorney Mo Wiltshire filed a lawsuit on behalf of local bars On the Rocks, Moonshine Bar, Buddha Bar, Cloud, Infusia and Centro alleging that the last-call ordinance violated Kemp’s emergency order, which prohibits local governments from enacting stricter COVID provisions than the state. That provision is currently under judicial review, as Kemp has challenged Atlanta’s mask ordinance.
That afternoon, Superior Court Judge Eric Norris—an Oconee County resident appointed by Republican Gov. Nathan Deal—issued an order temporarily restraining ACC from enforcing the new, earlier last call or the mask ordinance. Ironically, the order appeared to be written on the back of a bar napkin. A hearing is set for Thursday, Aug. 6. (UPDATE: The hearing has been postponed until Aug. 14.)
In the meantime, the college students who are already trickling into town will be licking eyeballs mask-free into the early hours of the morning. Clarke County is adding new COVID-19 cases at the rate of about 40–50 per day, with the numbers constrained only by the limits of the county’s testing capacity. By the time the hearing is held, Athens’ total cases will be approaching 2,000. Last week, the disease claimed the lives of two local residents, including a 32-year-old UGA staff member. And that is before tens of thousands of students and employees return to campus. Bars have been proven to be places where one “superspreader” can infect dozens of people in one evening.
“By all epidemiological standards, this whole state should be shut back down and quarantined again,” Link said. “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.”
Even the Trump administration agrees. The White House classifies Georgia as in the “red zone” and recommends that states in the red zone close bars entirely. Kemp had the opportunity to do so when he renewed his emergency order July 31. Instead, he doubled down, adding language intended to bolster his case for nullifying Atlanta’s mask ordinance.
“We’re about to see 40,000 college students descend upon this town this weekend,” Link said. “We’ve got to do something.” But the powers that be won’t let us.
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