It’s been a little over a month since the University of Georgia began classes for the fall semester. In that time, there have been over 3,000 new cases of COVID-19 in the UGA community, and over 2,000 new cases in Athens-Clarke County, and it’s unclear who bears responsibility for the increase.
On Sept. 14, UGA student Brennan Cox sent a letter to Gov. Brian Kemp asking him to compel the county government to enforce COVID-19 provisions in the governor’s executive orders, specifically the ones pertaining to bars.
Cox said the county was enforcing only the occupancy limit at bars, and not the other provisions. Those provisions include providing service to seated patrons only, redesigning seating arrangements with 6 feet in between separate groups and limiting tables to 6 patrons each.
“The sole purpose of the letter was really to empower Mayor Girtz, Athens-Clarke County commission [and] Athens-Clarke County police to enforce the executive order in its entirety. This attention can be parlayed into action, which is really tightening regulation at the bars and other places,” Cox said, who sent the letter as a student and not in his official capacity as UGA’s Interfraternity Council president.
Cox said Creature Comforts was an example of a bar that was following COVID-19 guidelines of outdoor seating. If the rest of downtown looked like Creature Comforts, Cox said, the county would be in a better position.
UGA President Jere Morehead said the measures that the university has taken have worked to control the spread of the virus.
“I have a mask on and everyone in my class has a mask on, and we’re all social distancing,” Morehead told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “Where it’s not working is downtown in the evenings. It’s not working at off-campus parties. Unfortunately, those are things beyond my control. They’re under the control of the Athens-Clarke County government.”
Athens Mayor Kelly Girtz said he is requesting the assistance of state authorities to enable the local government to do more to control the spread of the virus, and that all county workers have been working overtime since the pandemic began. While there isn’t a single entity that is solely responsible for the spread of COVID-19, Girtz said the return of students to Athens resulted in a spike in cases.
“I joke all the time about the things that I would do if I was emperor of Athens-Clarke County,” Girtz said. “But I’m not emperor, I’m mayor, and that means that my purview, while it contains lots of options, is not endless.”
Girtz said there are loopholes present in the executive order, and that legally, capacity is one of the only things in the executive order that is enforceable by police and in court. He detailed the loopholes in the executive order in a letter to Cox on Sept. 15. He said the phrases “as practicable” and “if applicable” create difficulties in enforcing the provisions.
“Bars are unique environments, and norms around everything from ordering to social interaction are not the same as in seated restaurants or at the dinner table at home. While the carve-outs in the executive order recognize that, they also allow for a more dangerous environment than if the table service requirements, etc. were unequivocal,” the letter reads. Girtz said the county needed Kemp to modify the executive order’s wording.
Janet Frick, an associate professor of psychology, said she disagreed with Cox’s assertion that the spread was due solely to off-campus gatherings.
“We don’t actually know if the spread is only happening because of off campus activities. We do not have sufficient data to draw that conclusion,” she said. More testing in the residence halls and better contact tracing could lead to more solid conclusions about on-campus spread, Frick said.
Girtz said there are things that need to be done at the state, county and university level, and the controlling the gathering of large groups that the county is currently enforcing is critical.
In the letter, Girtz said the county government will expand outdoor seating and increase patrols downtown to discourage underage bar goers and ensure that legal drinkers are spaced out. UGA should increase COVID-19 testing and contact tracing, and hold students accountable through disciplinary actions if they aren’t following guidelines, the letter says, and Kemp should decrease the allowed gathering size from 50 to 10 people.
Cox said he and Girtz have been meeting to determine the best way forward. They both said there wasn’t a single entity to point the finger at for the increase in cases.
“The time [is] for everybody to embrace responsibility, and expect that others share in that,” Girtz said.