Boar’s Head displays a sign on its outer gate notifying law enforcement is does not consent to enforcement of the local mask mandate on Monday, Sept. 21, 2020 in downtown in Athens, Georgia. Athens Clarke-County has issued a mask mandate, but many bars have chosen to forgo enforcement on their property. (Photo/Julian Alexander, jalexander@randb.com)

The Athens-Clarke County Mayor and Commission unanimously passed an emergency ordinance requiring people to wear masks in public places during a special called session on Aug. 18. Under the ordinance, ACC assistant attorney Michael Petty said business owners will imply consent for the county to enforce the mask mandate within their businesses. 

However, police cannot enforce the mandate if a business owner posts a sign outside that says they do not consent to enforcement of face coverings inside the business.

“The reason why we have that sign up is because we had to stop police from coming in the building and harassing customers while they were standing at the bar,” Mitch Jordan, owner of On The Rocks, Moonshine and 1785 Bar and Grill said.  

Private businesses exempt

Several bars and restaurants in Athens have posted signs in the windows of their buildings in order to prevent police from entering the business and enforcing face coverings among patrons. Jordan said he has had the sign up at his locations since Gov. Brian Kemp enacted an executive order that allows for local mask mandates.

Although the executive order allows mask mandates, Kemp does not allow local governments to intervene with private businesses. 

“While I support local control, it must be properly balanced with property rights and personal freedoms,” Kemp said in an interview with Georgia Public Broadcasting. 

Although the sign does not permit any county enforcement of a mask mandate, Jordan said his staff has been wearing masks and handing out free masks. 

Jarrod Miller, chief operating officer of 1785 Bar and Grill, On The Rocks and Moonshine, said he has seen an increased police presence downtown. Miller and his staff intend to follow the law, but he said there are certain rights his businesses have that he does not want to give up. 

“It's kind of one of those things where if we allow any further encroachment, we’d basically be giving up all our rights.” Miller said.

State vs. county enforcement battle

ACC Mayor Kelly Girtz asked Gov. Kemp in a Sept. 21 letter to tighten COVID-19 restrictions and make existing restrictions clearer. 

In the letter, Girtz requested the legal gathering limit decrease from 50 people to 10, and for more clarity in Kemp’s executive order so that police officers and prosecuting attorneys can ensure “that seated environments and table service are the only manner of operation allowed.” 

As Girtz asks for localities to have more control over bars, the COVID-19 numbers at the University of Georgia have decreased for the second week in a row. The decrease in positive cases gives Jordan a reason to think that the Athens government will not intervene any more than it already has.  

“I'm hopeful that's not going to happen, but who knows,” Jordan said. “I just saw another article today that COVID numbers are declining now for a second week in a row. I don't think that [more restrictions are] going to happen. But again, who knows what they'll do?”