Gov. Brian Kemp is set to roll back longstanding COVID-19 distancing restrictions in Georgia amid a mix of relief and concern from local businesses and public-health experts.
Starting Thursday, Georgia’s months-long ban on gatherings of more than 50 people in one place will be lifted per orders from the governor, who has steadily moved to ease safety measures imposed since the virus swept the state in March last year.
Restaurants and bars will be allowed to seat patrons at least 3.5 feet from each other instead of the previous 6-foot requirement. Movie-goers can sit 3 feet from each other in indoor theaters. A shelter-in-place order for nursing homes and other elderly-care facilities also will be lifted.
Additionally, police officers will be barred from shutting down businesses that refuse to comply with the new scaled-back distancing and sanitization rules. A partial ban on mask mandates in Georgia cities and counties will also remain in effect.
Kemp’s decision comes as more and more Georgians receive their first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine, which was made available to everyone age 16 and older starting late last month.
Nearly 4.3 million vaccines have been administered in Georgia as of Tuesday, marking more than 2.8 million people who have received at least one of the needed two doses for most vaccines. More than 1.5 million Georgians are now fully vaccinated, according to state Department of Public Health data.
“We continue to make steady progress in our vaccine administration here in Georgia,” Kemp said this week. “The life-saving COVID-19 vaccine is our key back to normal, and with all Georgians ages 16 and over now eligible to receive the shot, we are well on our way as we head into spring and summer.”
The rollback set for Thursday drew praise from local business leaders including restaurant owners who have been hit hard by the pandemic over the past year. Roughly 20% of Georgia’s restaurants remain closed after more than half shut down temporarily in the pandemic’s early days, said Karen Bremer, president of the Georgia Restaurant Association.
Bremer noted the 6-foot distancing rule has limited restaurants to about 60% of capacity, complicating dine-in services as many restaurants turned to curbside and delivery during the pandemic. Restaurants will still have leeway to decide whether to stick with the stricter safety measures once the rollback kicks in, she said.
“Slowly but surely, we have been able to expand to a more reasonable level,” Bremer said. “I’m sure that there will be many that still require the face coverings for people to come into their businesses. It’s their prerogative as a business to do that.”
The Georgia Chamber of Commerce also backed Kemp’s rollback decision, noting local businesses “should continue to follow safety protocols and prioritize the health of customers and employees,” said Chris Clark, the chamber’s president and CEO.
However, some public-health experts have urged Kemp to pump the brakes on loosening COVID-19 restrictions until more Georgians become fully vaccinated in the next month or so.
“Too soon, way too soon,” said Dr. Carlos del Rio, a leading Emory University epidemiologist who has focused on the virus since its onset last year. He pushed for waiting until at least the end of this month to start relaxing restrictions.
His stance was echoed by Isaac Fung, an associate professor of epidemiology at Georgia Southern University’s Jiann-Ping Hsu College of Public Health. Georgia should hold off on fully reopening until about three-fourths of all residents have been vaccinated to reach herd immunity, he said.
In the meantime, restaurants can take steps like install plexiglass screens between customers and require masks to reduce risks of transmission, particularly as more infectious mutations of the virus take root in Georgia, Fung said.
“I would highly recommend Georgians to put on face masks if they speak, especially in public or when they’re meeting with friends,” Fung said. “I understand why they want that to be relaxed … but people should remain vigilant. … The pathway forward is to get as many people fully vaccinated as quickly as possible.”
Georgians can pre-register for a vaccine appointment at myvaccinegeorgia.com even if they do not yet qualify under the governor’s eligibility criteria. They will be notified once they qualify and scheduled for an appointment.
State officials have opened nine mass vaccination sites in Atlanta, Macon, Albany, Savannah, Columbus, Waycross and Bartow, Washington and Habersham counties.
As more Georgians are vaccinated, Kemp said he will not seek to require so-called “vaccine passports” for people to show proof they’ve been vaccinated in order to travel, work or frequent businesses.
“While the development of multiple safe, highly effective COVID-19 vaccines has been a scientific miracle, the decision to receive the vaccine should be left up to each individual,” Kemp said.
More than 857,000 people had tested positive for COVID-19 in Georgia as of Tuesday afternoon, with more than 209,000 more reported positive antigen tests indicating likely positive results. The virus has killed 16,761 Georgians.
After over a year of virtual services and home visits, Mercy Care of Rome will be reopening their facility and restarting their in-person adult day health program on April 19.
They’ve been working on a reopening plan for the last few months, with four phases.
“We started with education and preparation, learning about (personal protective equipment) and masks,” Executive Director Liz Molina said. “Then we did some run-throughs, reenacted a typical day and brought up any potential problems we may have.”
Mercy Care is a nonprofit organization that operates adult day health centers and medical facilities in several locations. The Rome facility serves seniors all around Northwest Georgia and provides them with multiple services, such as medical care, activities and employment opportunities.
They’ve continued a lot of their programs through phone calls, at-home health checkins and Zoom calls, but this will be the first time they’ve opened their facility since the COVID-19 pandemic began.
Molina confirmed that they will still continue their pandemic services for those who are still quarantining. Not all of their clients will be returning as some of the families worry about their health and safety.
The organization will not have any vaccination requirement, according to Molina, but they will be strongly encouraging all of their clients to get the COVID-19 vaccine.
Clients coming into the facility will be screened by having their temperature checked and answering a series of COVID-19 related questions, such as “Have you experienced any coughing or fever in the last two weeks?”
Masks will be required by all clients in the facility, both indoors and outdoors.
Over the past year, the nonprofit has been able to make some changes and upgrades around their facility, using money from a grant from the Northwest Georgia Area Agency on Aging.
One of the first projects they planned was a meditation garden for their clients to use on nice days. They already have a gazebo set up and had benches donated by a local Eagle Scout.
They still need to add fencing and flowers around the garden, but they should have it ready in the next few months. Molina said she’s been talking to their landscaper about the kinds of plants that would fit best in that area.
Molina and staff also have been working on a transition room for their clients.
“Some of our clients haven’t left their homes in over a year so we want to make a calming room for them to relax in when they might get overwhelmed,” the director said.
The transition room already has a few rocking chairs and couches, as well as calming music and sounds to listen to. Molina also plans to add some fidget devices for the clients to use in case they’re anxious.
On April 29, Mercy Care will host their annual golf tournament fundraiser at Barnsley Resort in Adairsville. Registration starts at $250 for one player.
For more information on the golf tournament and registration, contact Mercy Care at 706-291-8496.
The Cave Spring City Council is set to vote next week on a health insurance change for their employees.
Mayor Rob Ware explained at a work session that the city has seen a steady increase in its plan costs over the last few years, from $824.61 to $951.06 a month.
After researching options, Ware decided that they should continue to offer the current plan, but to go with an alternative plan that would be around $884 a month.
“If anyone wants to continue on the plan they’re on now, they would have to pay the difference,” Ware said.
The board’s regular monthly meeting will be at 6 p.m. Tuesday at Fannin Hall.
Alli Mitchell from United Way of Rome and Floyd County is scheduled to make a presentation on the services they could provide for Cave Spring.
Council members also will be voting to award a contract for asbestos removal at the former Georgia School for the Deaf’s girls dormitory building.
Ware said they currently have a bid for $46,000 from Asbestos Abatement Services, but they’re waiting on a price from Best Way Construction Services.
During the work session, council members also discussed scheduling a city clean-up day before some of their summer festivals start.
They’re looking at scheduling it for the third or fourth weekend in May, which would be a few weeks after the Georgia Mushroom Festival on May 1 and 2 and the Bacon Festival and Car Show on May 8.
Council member Nancy Fricks agreed to chair a committee to get the cleanup organized, while Ware suggested contacting Keep Rome-Floyd Beautiful Director Emma Wells to help out.
They hope to do something similar to the cleanup they had several years ago, when they rented Dumpsters from the county to use and had people collect litter in garbage bags.
If done before June, they’ll have the town ready and clean in time for the Cave Spring Arts Festival, scheduled for June 12 and June 13.
Rome City Manager Sammy Rich is getting an even better handle on city operations while continuing the search for an assistant city manager. Patrick Eidson left that post at the end of the year to take a similar position in Carrollton.
In the absence of an assistant, Rich is attending nearly all committee and agency meetings within city government. Typically, the assistant city manager would have direct supervisory responsibility for certain committees.
The city received approximately 70 applications for the job.
“They came with wide-ranging levels of experience, to prior experience as managers and assistant managers,” Rich said. “There are some qualified applicants in the pool. You just have to dive in and go through the process.”
Rich said he has narrowed that field to somewhere around 12 and 15. He has sent each of those candidates a letter requesting additional information and will cull the field even further before conducting personal interviews.
“We’re working through those responses now,” Rich said.
There is no specific timetable for filling the position. Rich said he wants the best fit for the long term.
“I’m looking for someone who will be a good complement to me and my skill set,” Rich said. “Depending on who we end up with and what skills they bring to the table, we may end up with some shuffling of duties.”
The city manager said his administrative assistant Kelley Parker has been a “rockstar” during the interim and his department heads have helped ease the pressure to make a quick decision.
“It’s more about finding the right person than finding one in some time period,” he said.