The exterior of Hendershot's on Friday, May 22, 2020. (Photo/Jason Born)

Athens businesses are taking their own action to keep customers and employees safe in the face of ever-changing COVID-19 constraints and the highly infectious Delta variant.

After over 18 months of outdoor dining, takeout and shutdowns, Athens establishments have begun to reopen to the awaiting public. The fall of 2021 has helped bring the city back to life, escorting in droves of students with little to no COVID-precautions mandated.

The returning and first-time residents are now a part of the daily bustle of downtown Athens, a sight that looks remarkably similar to the pre-COVID state of the world. Although the crowds signify a return to normalcy, the health data suggests otherwise.

Currently, Georgia cases have reached their second-highest peak ever, beat out only by the peak in January of this year. The surge in cases comes with the highly transmissible Delta variant, as well as public resistance to COVID-19 vaccinations and mask-wearing recommendations.

The University of Georgia has not mandated vaccines for students, and mask-wearing on campus is only “strongly encouraged.” In the Athens-Clarke County area, masks are once again required indoors due to a local state of emergency.

Yet the question of how to handle COVID-19 has fallen primarily on the shoulders of private businesses in Athens, left to figure out how best to navigate a high-risk situation.

Seth Hendershot prioritized health concerns when updating the operations for his coffee shop and bar, Hendershot’s. His focus on safety even stretched into his interview, which he delayed as he shut down his entire establishment over one potential COVID case.

“I'm trying to not let any of that slide by, like, I really want to stick to this way of doing things,” Hendershot said. He said the community appreciates his proactivity in closing down at the sight of a 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 some to enter. He would host occasional events for about 25 people, like “Dinner with a Show.”

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 48-hour negative COVID-19 test 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.

Still, Hendershot wanted strength in numbers. He gathered local establishments and venues with a proposal: come out together with a public statement as a “united front.”

He got the idea from Nashville, where he said 12 clubs in the city had come together to require vaccine cards or negative COVID-19 tests. The move spurred consideration from Hendershot.

“I was like, wow, that's something maybe clubs in Athens should think about. Lo and behold, that night 40 Watt comes out and announces that they're requiring vaccine cards or a negative test 48 hours before,” Hendershot said.

He then reached out to a group of venues and bars to create a united front in Athens, many of whom agreed to his proposal. The eventual list was sent out in a statement on social media, including 40 Watt Club, the Georgia Theatre, Flicker Theatre and Bar and Nowhere Bar. All would require vaccine cards or negative tests to enter a live show.

Kim Long, CEO of Flicker Theatre and Bar, said it was a “suicide for one standalone business” to propose the requirement. She agreed to join Hendershot so the venues could provide a “safe space to socialize.”

“We wanted to make a big statement to show that we're fully aware of the situation, and we're doing everything in our power to encourage a healthier community,” Long said.

For Long, her concern centered around confusion for the customer base in Athens. With few standardized regulations, many people don’t know the rules and requirements of each establishment.

She said the joint statement creates “equal messaging” to combat confusion.

“The thing that we learned is to try to be really clear up front at the door with our policies, so people aren't surprised,” Long said.

Still, not every business signed on to the announcement. Other establishments pursued their own policies. Cocktail bar The Old Pal has a similar rule, requiring customers to present their vaccine card in order to be served (but not for general entry).

When asked about the policy, The Old Pal had no further comment beyond what it stated on social media. Its Instagram post announcing the requirement of a vaccine card or a negative COVID test said it was “the right move to keep our guests and staff as safe and comfortable as possible.”

Many restaurants in Athens follow the local mask mandate. Hi-Lo Lounge has signs asking customers to wear masks unless seated, and employees at many culinary spots wear face coverings.

Even as businesses move to create their own policies, the threat of the Delta variant and rapid influx of the population remains. Hendershot said he doesn’t mind the increase in people, since they’re a bump for the economy. To Hendershot, the problem isn’t with the students — it’s the University of Georgia.

​​“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.”

Hendershot and Long each said their student customers have been generally respectful of safety precautions, and they’re glad students are back in the city.

Long remained optimistic about Athens and plans to keep holding live events as long as she can adapt.

“The whole point is we're trying to have a good time and the best way that we can with adaptations,” Long said. “That’s what we’ve got to do.”

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