More coronavirus restrictions to end, bars and nightclubs can open Monday

Gov. Brian Kemp Wednesday signed off on the state's $25.9 billion spending plan for next year, which includes a $2.2 billion budget cut hashed out during the final weeks of the 2020 legislative session. Nearly $1 billion of the cuts were made to public education. John McCosh/Georgia Recorder

Gov. Brian Kemp Thursday gave the green light for amusement parks, bars, nightclubs and small event venues to reopen next month if they abide by safety guidelines as he continues easing restrictions on businesses shut down because of the COVID-19 pandemic.  

Kemp’s latest executive order further eases April’s shelter-at-home directive and creates a path for the gradual return of professional and amatuer sports, overnight summer camps, and summer school. His decision comes six weeks after the reopening of restaurant dining areas, tattoo parlors, barbershops, and salons following the statewide shutdown. 

Bars and nightclubs can reopen June 1 if they comply with a 39-point list of sanitation and social distancing rules, including screening employees for fever and limiting gatherings of people to 25 or 35% of the building’s capacity.

And on June 12, amusement parks can reopen. Earlier this week, Six Flags Over Georgia publicized the safety precautions it will follow when it opens, including keeping the attendance low enough to allow visitors to maintain six feet of separation.

The governor says he will continue with his strategy to transition Georgia back to something closer to what was business as usual just a few months ago before fears of the new coronavirus throttled public interaction and decimated the state’s economy

Kemp said it’s important to prevent a new spike in COVID-19 cases and that will depend on amusement parks, bars, and nightclubs and others embracing sanitizing regimens, social distancing and other public health guidelines as they welcome back customers.

“In this executive order, we continue to strongly encourage all Georgians and visitors to wear face coverings in public to mitigate viral spread, and restrictions remain intact for nearly every Georgia business to keep employees and customers safe,” he said.

Allowing gatherings of up to 25 people permits some small social and special occasions to resume. 

“Small weddings, recreational sports and similar events will be able to resume with a little more flexibility,” Kemp said. “But we are continuing to ask everyone to remain vigilant. Please continue to follow the public health advice as you engage in these activities.”

June 1, parents can consider sending their children to overnight summer camps, and school districts can hold summer school in classrooms, again with guidance to follow safety precautions.

Promoters started cancelling concerts and other live performances in March, leading with the cancellation of the NCAA Final Four in Atlanta and then the quick suspension of other sports seasons. Live performance venues are still indefinitely shut down. 

Thursday, Kemp also extended his statewide emergency declaration through July 12, which provides the governor with broad powers to overrule local laws during the pandemic. He declared Georgia’s first ever public health emergency in March.

A renewed call for the public to support tactics to contain the continued spread of COVID-19 in Georgia was paired with word that bars and nightclubs can open for business again, a renewal that started with hair salons and restaurants in early May.

The health department’s key containment plan now is to trace anyone in Georgia who has been in contact with people with confirmed COVID-19 infections. By Monday, more than 800 contact tracers will be on the job, said Dr. Kathleen Toomey, Georgia’s Department of Public Health Commissioner.

Hiring is ahead of schedule, she said, and now she plans to step up efforts to secure buy-in from people in communities across Georgia who will be asked to share personal information with tracers looking for potential infection connections.

“Contact tracing will not be successful if the people we contact don’t answer the phone or refuse to be part of this process,” she said Thursday. “We’ll only be successful if we could get people to identify others that they have been exposed to and to try and stop the spread of the virus quickly.”

The governor recommends leaning toward the safety side of the national mask-wearing culture war. The state doesn’t require people to wear masks in public and Kemp said that it might not be as important to don one if you can spread outdoors. He said to be safe you should wear one inside places like grocery and convenience stores.

“Wearing a mask helps prevent you or me from spreading the virus if we happen to have it, especially if we’re asymptomatic,” Kemp said.

The governor’s new order comes as some health experts continue to doubt that the spread of COVID-19 is slowing down in Georgia.

Georgia’s Department of Public Health COVID-19 data collection and tracking website has had its share of problems. Kemp and the state health department recently acknowledged that a processing error led to incorrectly added positive tests. Also, state officials inflated testing counts by 14% by adding antibody tests that check for past infection.

According to the health department report, by Thursday evening, 1,912 Georgians have died from the disease that’s infected about 45,000.

Stanley Dunlap
Stanley Dunlap has covered government and politics for news outlets in Georgia and Tennessee for the past decade. At The (Macon) Telegraph he told readers about Macon-Bibb County’s challenges implementing its recent consolidation, with a focus on ways the state Legislature determines the fate of local communities. He used open records requests to break a story of a $400 million pension sweetheart deal a county manager steered to a friendly consultant. The Georgia Associated Press Managing Editors named Stanley a finalist for best deadline reporting for his story on the death of Gregg Allman and best beat reporting for explanatory articles on the 2018 Macon-Bibb County budget deliberations. The Tennessee Press Association honored him for his reporting on the disappearance of Holly Bobo, which became a sensational murder case that generated national headlines.