Paper COVID safety sign

A sign stating masks are required hangs outside Junkman’s Daughter’s Brother in Athens, Georgia, on Tuesday, Sept. 7, 2021.

Dr. Andrew McKown is tired of seeing patients come into Piedmont Athens Regional Medical Center. He’s tired of seeing people on ventilators in the ICU, an ICU that’s 97% full these days. McKown is tired of watching people die from an illness that is made preventable by the COVID-19 vaccine.

“You can’t find an ICU bed across the Southeast. Not in Georgia, not in Alabama, not in South Carolina,” McKown said. “We’re on diversion like every other ICU, trying to care for the influx that’s coming.”

Since around 30,000 students returned to the University of Georgia for the fall semester, cases have risen by more than 60% in Athens-Clarke County. On campus, cases have doubled each week since the beginning of classes, surpassing 650.

The University System of Georgia has not implemented mask or vaccine mandates. UGA plans to host home football games at full capacity with more than 92,000 people in Sanford Stadium. Proof of vaccination will not be required to enter, and tailgating will be permitted once again.

With the looming football season ahead and the pandemic roaring on, a single question hangs over the city: Are we ready for the return of Saturdays in Athens?

County concerns continue

In the weeks approaching the Bulldogs’ 2020 home opener in October, university and county officials battled over responsibility for the county’s high number of COVID-19 cases. Members of the county commission decried the university for irresponsibility while UGA President Jere Morehead said that the school’s high case count was due to off-campus activity.

Last year, members of the county commission opposed football coming back with fans in the stadium, even as Sanford Stadium’s capacity was reduced to a third of its usual crowd. This year, UGA will not enforce a capacity limit nor require masks, vaccines or a negative COVID-19 test to enter the stadium as the delta variant causes rising cases in the Athens and UGA communities.

Instead of a vaccine mandate, UGA is promoting vaccinations using incentives. The university has fully vaccinated around 13,500 people as of Sept. 7, according to the University Health Center website. Just during the second full week of classes, UGA reported 457 COVID-19 cases, significantly higher than the 231 cases during the week of Aug. 16-22.

With Gov. Brian Kemp largely stopping local governments from enforcing COVID-19 restrictions, county commissioner Tim Denson said there isn’t much more the county can do to keep the community safe. He said it’s now in the hands of UGA and the USG, and called their actions negligent.

“The home football games we’re going to have here will lead to the deaths of people in Athens, in Georgia, in the United States,” Denson said. “It blows my mind that we have supposed leaders who are going to prioritize watching a football game over ending a pandemic, ending the economic repercussions of the pandemic, and basically being OK with people dying.”

Currently, the county has implemented an incentive program to encourage people to get vaccinated, as well as a mask mandate for indoor spaces in the county. However, businesses are able to opt out of the mask mandate, in accordance with an executive order from the governor.

Denson said he expects the home games to lead to the highest spike of cases the county has seen to date.

‘Crucial’ game days also pose threat to businesses.

For Jarrod Miller, the chief operations officer of 1785 Bar & Grill and Moonshine Bar, the COVID-19 pandemic has presented a unique set of challenges.

Although 1785 was closed for three months last year and made no revenue during that time, the bar still “persevered” upon reopening, Miller said. This was primarily because the bar also serves food, which kept the business afloat.

Serving food instead of just alcohol “enabled us to have an increased occupancy number based on COVID restrictions,” Miller said. “That obviously helped with putting more people in the bar even when people were apprehensive about going out for the first two months after reopening.”

This fall, the return of home football games offers both a boon and danger for businesses. Athens establishments have depended on the crowds that travel to the city for years, but now, there’s the possibility that those crowds are bringing COVID-19 along with their cash. As of Sept. 7, only about 44% of Georgians have been fully vaccinated, according to the Georgia Department of Public Health.

“Going from starving to feasting is probably the best way I could make an analogy for the return of game days from the pandemic,” Miller said. “Gamedays are the lifeblood of the bars in Athens — it can be the difference between staying in business or going out. Game days are that crucial.”

Enduring pandemic precautions

With COVID-19 cases rising in Athens, 1785 makes double the preparations for game days. From product orders, inventory and appliances to having enough on-call staff, Miller said the bar is ready for the big crowds.

“It’s a lot — COVID numbers are starting to spike up so I have to plan for what happens if someone gets sick. That means getting the employee to get tested, doing contact tracing with other staff members and the possibility of operating at a loss for 10 days when they cannot be there,” Miller said.

Similarly, other Athens businesses have dealt with the rapidly changing COVID-19 situation. Seth Hendershot prioritized health concerns when updating the operations for his coffee shop and bar, Hendershot’s, throughout the pandemic. 

He recently shut down his entire establishment over one potential COVID-19 case.

“I’m trying to not let any of that slide by. I really want to stick to this way of doing things,” Hendershot said. He believes the community appreciates his proactivity in closing down at any COVID-19 risk.

Hendershot’s, a live entertainment destination, has spent much of the past 18 months closed to public entry. Customers could order at a window and eat on the patio, but they were barred from entering the shop. Over the summer, as more people got vaccinated, Hendershot slowly allowed customers to enter, occasionally hosting events for about 25 people.

It wasn’t until the fall of 2021 that Hendershot chose to open up his establishment with some important qualifiers. For all of his events, guests must show their vaccine card or proof of a negative COVID-19 test within the last 48 hours to be given entry. Once inside, they must follow the local Athens mask mandate as well.

Hendershot was well aware that such a move would likely receive pushback. That didn’t change his decision.

“If you want to go see live music anywhere, and protect these musicians, and protect the bartenders and the people that work at the club, after all of us being shut down for a year and a half, this is just how we’re going to do it,” Hendershot said.

Even as businesses move to create their own policies, the threat of the delta variant and the rapid influx of the population due to classes starting back up and game days returning remains. Hendershot said he doesn’t mind the increase in people, since they’re a bump for the economy. He also said that many students who come to his establishment have obeyed COVID-19 protocols. To Hendershot, the problem isn’t with the students — it’s UGA.

“I wish that the university would take more responsibility,” Hendershot said. “If we worked together, symbiotically with the university, I think our community would be stronger.”

Similarly, Miller has seen a bump in business with UGA bringing back in-person classes and football. He also relies on the university because about 95% of bar staff between 1785 and Moonshine are UGA students, he said. The return of game days also brings back long hours for his student employees. Miller wants to be “mindful” of their health during the long hours of game day weekends, especially home games.

Ideally, 1785 will open at noon or 1 p.m. on Saturday game days. On noon game days, Miller said the bar anticipates to open as early as 10 or 10:30 a.m.

Currently, every bar in town can operate on 35% of their written capacity, according to Miller. 1785’s current bar capacity is 800 people with a “One person in, one person out” entry policy.

With the watchful eye of Athens Clarke County Police Department enforcing capacity limits during 2020, Miller anticipates the same surveillance with the return of game days and wants to avoid any citations for overcrowding.

“I think we are going to be the busiest on game days from noon until close. We had a lot of big crowds this summer but now we are going to be dealing with more sports fans and even alumni coming in for the day,” Miller said.