City DopeNews

AthFest, Brian Kemp and Pandemic Politics

Gov. Brian Kemp. Credit: Adria Carpenter/file

As many readers have no doubt already heard, AthFest—the highlight of the year for thousands of local music fans—was canceled last week for the second year in a row. Rising COVID-19 cases are to blame, but the real culprit is politics.

Athens-Clarke County was one of the first communities in Georgia to require masks inside public buildings, as recommended by the CDC and almost every public health expert, and after letting it lapse over the summer when cases were low, renewed the ordinance last month.

ACC policy also dictates that the county will not issue permits for special events when, two weeks before the event is scheduled to take place, ACC has had more than 150 cases per 100,000 people over the previous seven days. The CDC defines “high transmission” as more than 100 cases per 100,000 people in a seven-day period. Even though AthFest is an outdoor event, the Delta variant has been shown to spread much more easily than previous variants. People can be infected with just a few seconds of close contact. 

When AthFest started planning for Sept. 24-26 dates, COVID had been nearly eradicated in Athens, with just a handful of cases per day. Even two weeks before the Twilight Criterium returned in late August, the rate of transmission was below the threshold. But the Delta variant has spread so widely and so quickly that by the time AthFest’s drop-dead date to issue a final permit arrived on Sept. 9, the figure stood at 516 cases per 100,000 people over the previous seven days.

So why are home football games still happening? Think of the University of Georgia as Vatican City. It’s surrounded by Athens, but it’s essentially its own country, governed by the University System of Georgia in Atlanta. ACC laws don’t apply on campus. That’s why the USG can merely “strongly encourage” masks indoors in spite of the ACC mask mandate.

UGA is state property, and the state is governed by Brian Kemp, who has taken a laissez-faire attitude toward the pandemic, prioritizing business as usual over public health, even though the mask and vaccine mandates Kemp refuses to enact are broadly popular. (One August poll found that 63% of Georgians think companies should require employees to be vaccinated, or wear masks and submit to regular testing if they refuse.) The other 37%, though, are the Republican base. Kemp is out of favor with GOP kingmaker Donald Trump for refusing to try to overturn Trump’s loss in Georgia. In a state that’s split 50-50, he needs those voters to turn out in droves in 2022 if he hopes to win re-election.

Technically, UGA and other public colleges and universities are governed by the purportedly independent Board of Regents. But the 19 regents are appointed by the governor, and these are highly sought-after positions, bringing prestige and perks, generally doled out as rewards to high-dollar political fundraisers with little to no expertise in higher education.

Soon after taking office in 2019, Kemp used a technical error on the part of the outgoing Nathan Deal administration to oust two of Deal’s reappointments to the BOR, including Athens resident and liquor wholesaler Don Leebern Jr., who donated to both Kemp and his main Republican rival, then-Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, and backed former UGA president Michael Adams in his famous feud with Vince Dooley, Kemp’s mentor.

The remaining regents were on notice: Fall in line, or be replaced and lose those sweet seats at Sanford Stadium. The same is expected of the top-level administrators in Atlanta and the university presidents the BOR appoints. To quote acting USG chancellor Teresa MacCartney: “Gov. Kemp said last week at the Capitol, he believes mandates cause divisions on campuses. He does not support them. He further stated he believes those who want to wear a mask should wear them to protect themselves and others. He expects the university system to continue to focus on getting everyone that’s eligible vaccinated and to educate and advocate about why it’s so important. We continue to be in alignment with the governor’s expectations and requirements for state agencies through this pandemic.”

It’s clear who’s running the show. Neither the USG nor UGA will require masks or vaccinations, as hundreds of other public colleges and universities are doing in red and blue states around the country, and those orders come straight from the top. The failure to do so is a major reason why Kemp’s hometown of Athens had 516 COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people last week—more than five times what the CDC considers “high.”