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Georgia to ease COVID-19 distancing, gathering restrictions amid vaccine push

By Beau Evans
Staff Writer
Capitol Beat News Service

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.