Just as South Carolina becomes the latest state to close restaurant dining rooms in order to slow the spread of COVID-19, the governor of neighboring Georgia, Brian Kemp, has decided that’s not the correct move yet. Why? A fear of rebellion.
The AJC reports that during an interview on radio station Q99.7, Kemp says he “can’t just shut things down” because a perceived overreach of his current emergency powers, provided to him by Georgia lawmakers, would cause people to “rebel and not heed the warnings you give to them.”
The governor went on to say that he is not currently seeking relief incentives from the state for struggling businesses, but still asks Georgians to keep supporting small businesses and restaurants. In a video posted Wednesday to his official Facebook page, Kemp stood in front of a table filled with fast food from Atlanta’s iconic Varsity restaurant in Midtown. He encouraged people to order takeout and delivery from Georgia restaurants to practice social distancing.
To understand how serious other states around the country are heeding the advice from the CDC, World Health Organization, and President Trump — who on Tuesday asked people not to gather in groups of more than ten — 20 states have mandated closures of restaurant dining rooms. Six major cities have also mandated dining rooms closures, as well, including Miami, Austin, and Dallas.
While Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms doesn’t need Kemp’s permission to shutter restaurants and bars in her city, she imposed a ban on public gatherings of 50 or more people, including at restaurants and bars, on Monday in order to promote social distancing and slow the spread of COVID-19 within the city.
The city of Brookhaven, just north of Atlanta, declared a state of emergency and suspended dine-in service at restaurants and bars until March 30. Delivery and takeout is allowed for restaurants with proper permitting (as has been the case with all of the states and cities mandating dining room closures).
Kemp has yet to enact a statewide ban of public gatherings, but did order the closures of all public elementary, secondary, and post-secondary schools in Georgia. As for why Kemp has yet to ban public gatherings, he tells Q99.7 he’s looking to the federal government for guidance, while continuing to “do things, based on data and advice from healthcare experts.”
Most Atlanta area restaurants and bars have either voluntarily closed dining room service and transitioned to takeout and delivery or closed altogether to help prevent the spread of the virus. Karen Bremer, the president of the Georgia Restaurant Association (GRA), says in the last week alone, restaurant sales around the state have declined by as much as 70 percent.
The impossible decisions restaurant owners are currently facing include whether to continue serving with social distancing measures in place, lay off staff due to steep declines in sales, or to close. These decisions have become exacerbated by the convoluted messaging coming from the local, state, and federal levels.
Many restaurants have taken drastic measures to keep people employed or at least provide some financial aid to laid-off or furloughed staff, setting up fundraising campaigns through GoFundMe or virtual tip jars via Venmo and Paypal.
Bremer estimates that Georgia restaurants and bars employ over 500,000 people and need nearly $83 million per month to make payroll and pay occupancy expenses. Georgia’s restaurant industry generates approximately $25 billion annually for the state.
Kemp requested some relief for Georgia’s small businesses on Wednesday, asking the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) to “provide SBA Economic Injury Disaster Loans to the State of Georgia.” According to the SBA website, economic injury disaster loans provide small businesses within “declared disaster areas” money to continue operating and to help pay necessary expenses while recovering.
That disaster loan request was granted by the SBA on Wednesday evening.
“This is great news for Georgia small business owners,” Kemp says in the press release. “As we continue to navigate the impact of COVID-19 on our economy, small business owners can apply for much-needed funding to continue operation and pay their employees.”
On Monday, March 16, the GRA sent a letter laying out an economic relief plan for the state’s restaurants to Kemp and mayors and county commissioners across Georgia.
Today, Georgia House District 51 Representative Josh McLaurin, along with 14 other state House colleagues, signed and sent a letter to Kemp imploring him to push back the Friday, March 20, sales tax deadline and expand unemployment insurance. The U.S Treasury Department estimates the country could see an unemployment rate of 20 percent in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak. Atlanta chefs such as Miller Union’s Steven Satterfield and Castellucci Hospitality Group CEO Fred Castellucci III have also been calling on Kemp to defer the sales tax deadline to a later date.
Bee Nguyen, representing Georgia House District 89, and 18 state House and Senate colleagues sent a letter to Bottoms today asking for a number of relief provisions for restaurants and bars in Atlanta, including mandating closures while allowing takeout and delivery, deferring payments and waiving tax penalties, and allowing beer and wine to-go without a separate license.
Nguyen received word from Bottoms late Wednesday afternoon that the city of Atlanta is already delaying payments on license renewals, but does not have the authority to permit the sale of alcohol to-go. She has contacted the governor’s floor leader to inquire about selling alcohol to-go, who is checking to see if it is allowable under Kemp’s current executive order.
Update, March 18, 6:30 p.m.: This story has been updated to reflect new information on the SBA economic injury disaster loans for Georgia.
Update, March 18, 4:05 p.m.: This story has been updated with new information regarding Georgia House District 89 Representative Bee Nguyen’s letter to the Atlanta mayor asking for emergency restaurant and bar relief provisions.
NOTE: The novel coronavirus situation in Georgia is fluid and ongoing. Follow Eater Atlanta for continuing coverage on COVID-19’s impact on Atlanta’s restaurant industry. Additional stories are forthcoming.
Check the Georgia Department of Public Health website for further guidance and updates on COVID-19.