Tuesday’s Athens-Clarke County mayor and commission regular session meeting began with a motion to reconsider the amended language of the local emergency declaration from its previous meeting. The amended language of the declaration was subject to legal scrutiny as part of a lawsuit from local bars about moving the last call time for selling alcohol from 2 a.m. to 10 p.m.
The sixth extension of the local emergency ordinance included language that changed the county’s mandatory face mask rule — the exemption for people eating or drinking would only apply if the person was seated. District 7 Commissioner Russell Edwards moved to replace the language of the ordinance to the original wording, where people aren’t required to wear a mask while eating or drinking regardless of whether they are seated or standing.
The motion passed eight to one. District 3 Commissioner Melissa Link was the sole dissenter.
“I just want to make it clear that the intent of putting that provision in there was so that it would encourage the following of the governor’s order — patrons of restaurants only be served while seated,” Link said. “Obviously, that is not occurring at many establishments downtown, and we have no means of compelling that behavior other than through a provision such as that.”
There is a hearing Thursday to determine whether the last call change can be enforced. Western Judicial Circuit Superior Court Chief Judge Eric Norris temporarily suspended its enforcement on July 31.
Parklets, curbside parking spaces converted to outdoor restaurant seating, are officially in Athens’ future. The commission voted five to four to approve a policy that allows restaurants to create sidewalk extensions where customers can sit and eat downtown. This will help restaurants reopen and make money after being closed, many for multiple months, due to COVID-19.
The commission has been discussing the formation of parklets since the middle of June. In the commission’s last meeting, the county’s alcoholic beverage ordinance was amended to allow open containers outside of establishments with commercial liquor licenses, making alcoholic drink service to parklets possible. A recommended policy to create the parklets was finalized on July 30 and approved on Tuesday, with some amendments.
The plan allows restaurants to use 50% of the public parking in front of their business as parklets to serve people outside. The parklets must be located in the boundaries of existing parking spaces and have barriers between patrons and the road. Tables must be spaced 6 feet apart and are limited to 6 seats per table to follow social distancing guidelines.
The policy also says the program will run for at least 100 days before expiring or being extended by the county manager or by the mayor and commission. In the original plan, restaurants had to pay to use the parking spaces, but the commission voted to waive the fees for the 100-day period. The commission also voted to have a last call time for alcoholic beverages of 10 p.m. in the parklets.
Link proposed that the policy apply to both bars and restaurants that are in compliance with Gov. Brian Kemp’s executive order. District 10 Commission Mike Hamby said that if bars were allowed to create parklets, they would turn into beer gardens and encourage people gathering in close quarters.
The commission voted five to four to approve the parklet policy with most of the original plan, amended with the 10 p.m. last call time and the fee elimination. Bars remain excluded from the final parklet plan.
CARES Act funds
Athens-Clarke County was allocated about $6.6 million from phase one of the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act. The money from phase one has to be obligated by Sept. 1 or the county will lose the funds, county manager Blaine Williams said. An obligation is a binding contract that the money will be spent.
The commission voted to accept the proposed funding plan, which will distribute money to multiple government departments and community organizations. The accepted plan includes an amendment for an extra $100,000 for COVID-19 testing supplies.
The extra $100,000 was proposed by Link to buy two testing machines — one that will process four COVID-19 tests at a time and another to process two tests at a time. The money will also buy 1,000 test kits.
“The more tests we can process and determine, the sooner we can get a hold on this thing,” Link said. “It’s obviously up to us as a local government, because the federal government and the state government is doing next to nothing to assist us in controlling this in our own community and, in fact, they’re tying our hands while people in our community die.”
Hamby said it was “frustrating” that it was taking the government so long to distribute the CARES funds, citing Gwinnett and Cobb county governments already distributing millions of dollars in grants.
“This virus is not easy. There’s businesses that need help, there’s people that need help, and we’ve got a list here that can get that moving,” Hamby said. “We’re moving too slow on this, y’all. And, I mean, it’s not right.”
Hamby proposed the commission accept the funding list with the $100,000 amendment so the plan can be finalized after county attorney Judd Drake creates a resolution at a special called session on Aug. 11.
The commission voted unanimously to accept the list. Williams said it’s possible that a phase two of funds will be released — the money from both phases has to be spent before Dec. 30.
The commission also voted to rezone some properties on West Broad and Oconee Streets. A special use permit was approved for three houses on Highland Park Drive to be used as halfway houses to be run by Freedom From Bondage, an Athens-area women’s drug and alcohol rehabilitation organization.
Loading zones on Clayton Street will be moved to adjacent and side streets due to ongoing construction on the street. The commission also accepted a Transportation Special Local Option Sales Tax project that provides a public art piece at the roundabout at Whitehall Road and South Milledge Avenue. Funds from the 2011 SPLOST fund were reallocated to new projects and contingency funds.
The mayor and commission has a work session Aug. 11 at 5:30 p.m.