The Athens-Clarke County Commission reached a settlement with local bars temporarily moving the last call for alcohol up to 11:30 p.m. in an effort to slow the spread of coronavirus.
The earlier last call will last until five days after Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Harold Melton’s declaration of a judicial emergency expires. The current order partially closing courthouses statewide is set to expire Sept. 10 but could be extended, according to ACC Attorney Judd Drake.
“When the courthouses are fully open and operational, the bars are going to be,” Drake said.
The settlement—approved at an emergency called meeting Friday morning—came less than an hour before a hearing was scheduled to start on the bar owners’ lawsuit. They filed it July 31, the day after the commission voted to move last call from 2 a.m. to 10 p.m. to discourage returning UGA students from drunkenly congregating in close quarters late at night. Judge Eric Norris issued a temporary restraining order preventing ACC from enforcing the earlier last call or a mask ordinance approved July 7.
On Thursday, Gov. Brian Kemp dropped his lawsuit against the City of Atlanta over a similar mask requirement, but he is expected to issue an executive order Saturday barring cities from requiring masks in businesses.
Commissioner Russell Edwards called Kemp “belligerent toward local government” and reluctantly voted for the settlement.
“The ongoing risk of the governor’s potential to undermine the progress we’ve made so far has sort of forced our hand in this litigation matter,” Edwards said.
Meanwhile, President Trump’s coronavirus task force recommended that Georgia close bars entirely because of the state’s “widespread and expanding” pandemic, according to documents obtained by the AJC.
Commissioner Melissa Link warned the public of the dangers of going to bars. Packed indoor gatherings where people aren’t wearing masks are the perfect environment for spreading coronavirus.
“If you walk into a room in Athens-Clarke County with 50 people, especially 50 people under 30, the chances are near 100 percent that one of those folks is actively contagious with COVID-19,” Link said, pointing out that the virus has killed 167,000 Americans and 4,400 Georgians, including several dozen in their 20s. In addition, she noted, even healthy young people who don’t get a serious case can spread it to others who have higher risk factors, like parents and grandparents.
The bar owners who sued “have blood on their hands,” Link said.
Commissioner Andy Herod also blasted the plaintiffs.
“It’s kind of pathetic that we have a bunch of bar owners that live in Oconee County, who hired an Oconee County bunch of lawyers to sue us when we’re trying to protect the public health here in Athens, and they’re more interested in making money than protecting the public health,” Herod said.
The plaintiffs listed in the lawsuit are Athens Entertainment Concepts, SEC Entertainment, Chatto Fields, Infusia and Centro Athens.
State records show Mitchell Jordan, Richard Jordan II and Jason Dunn as the officers for those companies. Richard Jordan II and Dunn have Oconee County addresses, according to the Georgia secretary of state’s office, while Mitchell Jordan lists the Clayton Street bar On the Rocks as his residence.
In addition to On the Rocks, those companies own the downtown student bars Moonshire Bar, Buddha Bar, Cloud, Infusia and Centro.
Their attorney, Mo Wiltshire, told Flagpole that ACC intended to appeal if it lost, and his clients wanted to avoid expensive protracted litigation, as well as the risk of going to trial.
“Also of importance is the hope our people have that a 12 midnight close and 11:30 pm last call will allow them to operate their business [in] what they imagine may be a sustainable fashion,” Wiltshire said. “However, a 10 p.m. last call is the same as closing the businesses entirely.”
The settlement calls for bars to clear out patrons by midnight. It also reduces alcohol license fees for the next two years.
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