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—but the idea made some commissioners sick.
Bar owners who sued over an emergency ordinance moving the 2 a.m. last call to 10 p.m. “have blood on their hands,” Commissioner Melissa Link said. She 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.
The settlement—approved at an emergency called meeting Aug. 14—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.
Gov. Brian Kemp dropped his lawsuit against the City of Atlanta over a similar mask requirement on Aug. 13, but two days later issued a new executive order barring cities from requiring masks in businesses. While Kemp’s new order does permit local governments that meet a certain threshold of coronavirus cases—all but two counties in Georgia qualify—to pass mask ordinances, they can’t penalize businesses that don’t comply.
Meanwhile, President Trump’s coronavirus task force has recommended that Georgia close bars entirely because of the worsening COVID-19 pandemic.
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.
The lawsuit was brought by the companies that own six downtown student bars: On the Rocks, Moonshine Bar, Buddha Bar, Cloud, Infusia and Centro. State records list the owners of those companies as Mitchell Jordan, Richard Jordan II and Jason Dunn.
“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,” said Commissioner Andy Herod.
The bar owners’ 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 p.m. 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.
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 end 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.
On Tuesday, using a model from the Georgia Municipal Association, the commission revised its mask ordinance so that it can be enforced at private businesses unless the business opts out.
“The governor’s order from Saturday obviously allows now local governments to mandate masks with some exceptions. Specifically on private businesses, we can’t require it,” assistant ACC attorney Michael Petty said. “What the ordinance says is, if they want to consent, we can enforce the ordinance, the mask mandate, in their place of [business].”
The GMA ordinance assumes businesses consent “unless they post a sign outside their business saying they don’t want it enforced within their business,” according to Petty.
Commissioners also urged ACC Manager Blaine Williams to step up enforcement as tens of thousands of college students pour into town, and into big-box stores and downtown bars.
Commissioner Tim Denson referenced a recent study by a UGA infectious diseases professor saying that a hypothetical university in Georgia the size of UGA and following UGA’s rules on masks and social distancing on campus would still see 500–1,0000 new COVID-19 cases a day due to off-campus behavior, with an estimated 30,000 people infected this semester.
“The situation with all these students showing up here—not knowing if they have it, possibly being asymptomatic, not knowing these policies—puts our entire community in danger, drastically,” Denson said.
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