Georgia Lifts All COVID-19 Restrictions

Last month, food service establishments in Georgia adjusted to a new, partially reopened state. On June 11th, Governor Brian Kemp signed an executive order that planned to lift nearly all of the state’s remaining restrictions.

The order, dubbed Empowering a Healthy Georgia, had mixed reception. Restaurant and other small business owners supported the decision, hoping that increasing capacity would boost their bottom line and garner the profits they’ve been missing for so many months. Public health experts and community members fear the decision may have come too soon, prioritizing the economy over people’s lives.

While the executive order opens up a lot of venues, restaurants in particular will see relaxed restrictions. As of June 16th, when the first part of the order went into place, restaurants are officially authorized to operate a full capacity. This means:

  • No maximum party sizes. Any size group can dine together, lifting the rule capping parties at ten people.
  • No square foot limit. There’s no more limit as to how many people there can be inside; in other words, no more social distancing.
  • Salad bars and buffets are back. Managers have a choice here: They can either change their service model to serve guests cafeteria-style or add protections to the bars and buffets. This means offering everyone hand sanitizer, installing a sneeze guard, frequently replacing self-service utensils (or coming up with one-use alternatives) and enforcing social distancing inside.
  • Workers have to wear masks…but only when they interact with customers.

As restaurants relax their rules, other businesses enjoy renewed freedom as well: Bars can now hold up to fifty people, conventions are resuming, and live performance venues reopened too. Up to fifty people can congregate without social distancing, and crowds with more than that can meet as long as they put six feet between everyone. Additionally, shelter-in-place orders have lifted for everyone over the age of 65 unless they have a medical condition.

On July 1st, Empowering a Healthy Georgia will relax measures even further. The full executive order, including restrictions and policies applicable on both June 16th and July 1st, can be found here.

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Health Officials Weigh In

Despite excitement from local businesses, public health experts have concerns about the ramifications this will have on the spread of COVID-19 cases—an issue that’s exacerbated, not started, by this order since cases have steadily increased for over a month. Health officials have consistently warned state government and the general public that any amount of reopening will endanger people’s health.

The number of confirmed COVID-19 cases has increased steadily since the state reopened in May, with noticeable spikes in the counties surrounding the Metro Atlanta area. As of June 12th, the day after Governor Kemp signed the order, Georgia Department of Public Health reported 54,973 confirmed cases and 2,375 deaths. This is the greatest number of COVID-19 cases that they’ve had since reopening, demonstrating a steady upward trend. These numbers disproportionately affect black citizens as well which is an unsurprising reflection of the U.S. as a whole.

That completes two weeks of steadily increasing caseloads. State officials attribute these numbers to the fact that they’re doing more testing, simultaneously insisting that they’re lifting regulations because the curve is, overall, flattening out. They also report that they have enough resources to handle more hospitalizations, including ICU beds, ventilators and other necessary equipment.

Despite their assurances, health officials continue to worry. Georgia is seeing 100 new hospitalizations every day and approximately 200 deaths every week. Their concerns lie primarily with smaller communities whose county healthcare systems aren’t as well equipped as metropolitan hospitals to have a massive wave of people coming down sick with the virus. Even if the state government does have a sufficient amount of equipment, those supplies need to be properly and equitably distributed to prevent more death.

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As the state inevitably fully reopens, restaurants hope that full capacity accommodations will help them get back enough customer support to remain in business even as many of their fellow restaurateurs closed down because of the COVID-19 pandemic and its associated restrictions. Even partially reopening didn’t bring the success they hoped since so much of their revenue comes from dine-in customers; instead, they had to pay all of their bills like normal even though they were bringing in significantly less money. They’re hoping completely lifting restrictions will change that.

Still, reopening might not bring all of the profits they’re anticipating it will. Many Georgians are aware of the rising rates of COVID-19 cases and continue to shelter-in-place if they’re able, concerned about the ongoing health and wellbeing of themselves and their loved ones. Even though restaurants are allowed to fill the rooms to full capacity, it remains to be seen whether residents will take advantage of that. Regardless of public turnout, everyone has their eye on how fully reopening the state will affect the case rate of COVID-19 in the upcoming weeks of renewed Georgia freedom.

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