Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp’s emergency powers during the health crisis prevent cities and counties from enacting more severe COVID-19 measures beyond those mandated by the state. This loss of local control places cities with mask requirements and those rolling back reopening guidelines, like Atlanta, East Point, Athens, Augusta, and Savannah, in direct conflict with the governor, and puts restaurants and their employees at risk and in a difficult position.
Kemp made his stance clear regarding a slew of recent local mask mandates from cities across the state in an executive order late Wednesday evening. Buried within the “Governments” section of order 7.15.20.01 on page 32, the governor added new language to the previous order that bans local municipalities from requiring masks.
Then, on Thursday evening, Kemp and his administration filed a lawsuit which seeks to challenge Atlanta’s mask mandate as well as the rollback of the city’s reopening. Both were enacted by Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms over the last two weeks. Bottoms responded to the lawsuit in a tweet, pointing to her own COVID-19 diagnosis and the over 100,000 Georgians who have also tested positive for the virus.
3104 Georgians have died and I and my family are amongst the 106k who have tested positive for COVID-19. Meanwhile, I have been sued by @GovKemp for a mask mandate. A better use of tax payer money would be to expand testing and contact tracing. #ATLStrong pic.twitter.com/z4hpTrCS1B— Keisha Lance Bottoms (@KeishaBottoms) July 16, 2020
While the governor’s executive order doesn’t prohibit privately owned businesses and restaurants from requiring masks, it kicks the can down the road and puts these establishments in the position of having to police patrons and their behavior. The decision also sets up restaurant staff in front-of-house positions for potentially abusive interactions with people who refuse to wear masks if the restaurant requires them — on top of putting these workers at greater risk for contracting COVID-19.
“My front of the house staff is primarily all female and most of the pushback has been from men. Big men being combative, towering over young women, can be quite intimidating and it’s such an unnecessary reaction to the small request of wearing a mask,” Twisted Soul Cookhouse & Pours chef and owner Deborah VanTrece told Eater Atlanta recently. “We are even providing the mask.”
She worries about how to enforce mask-wearing at the restaurant without a local or state mandate. VanTrece considered shutting down the dining room and returning to takeout or possibly hiring security to safeguard her employees.
According to data from Giving Kitchen, approximately 40 percent of the crisis grants the organization distributed over the last eight working days went to Atlanta restaurant workers who have contracted the virus. To put it into perspective, of the 25 people who applied for financial assistance, 10 people were COVID-19 cases. That amounts to over $13,000 in financial aid of the nearly $30,000 distributed since the beginning of July.
Most workers applying for COVID-19 crisis assistance with Giving Kitchen are recovering from the virus quickly and are back to work within a matter of weeks. However, the numbers don’t account for those taking off work to care for family members or because they themselves are immunocompromised and risk serious complications from COVID-19.
“There a lot more people who don’t have COVID-19 but have had to stop working because of high risk,” Giving Kitchen executive director Bryan Schroeder tells Eater. “Another client we just approved is taking care of a parent with cancer and has had to leave restaurants.”
While most diners can work safely from home during the health crisis, nearly 70 percent of people employed in essential businesses, like restaurants, have little choice but to go into work. Masks are now a required part of the restaurant worker’s uniform, and a citywide or statewide mandate could help alleviate some of the stress and anxiety felt by front-of-house employees, like hosts, servers, and bartenders.
The squabbling and power plays between the governor and local officials only complicates matters for restaurant owners and their employees. The Atlanta mayor took steps recently to help slow the spread of the virus by mandating masks in public and rolling back the city’s reopening to phase one. Under the voluntary phase one reopening guidelines, restaurants are advised to (but not required to) close dining rooms and return to takeout. The moves come as record-breaking numbers in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations continue to surge in Georgia.
“Our decision to stay open was a collective one. I spoke with my staff and asked what they wanted to do. None of my staff wanted to go back to takeout only,” an Atlanta restaurant owner said after the mayor’s reopening rollback last week. “It is hard, especially for our front-of-house staff, to have a decent income without the dine-in service [or tips].”
Without clear, cooperative guidance from the government on whether to remain open or not and to require masks of the public, restaurant owners face tough decisions that not only affect the bottom line of the business, but the lives and livelihoods of those who work for them.
There’s also the attempts by some diners to make their restaurant experience feel “normal” again. In many cases, it becomes a lose-lose situation and creates tension between front-of-house employees and patrons.
Pietro Gianni, the co-owner of Forza Storico in Westside and Storico Fresco in Buckhead, says it’s been hard to navigate hospitality in a world where a highly communicable disease prohibits prolonged contact with people and all but forces dining rooms outdoors. Gianni and his partners closed down the dining room at Forza Storico in early July after cases began spiking in the state. The restaurant had already closed previously in June when an employee tested positive for COVID-19. Now, only the patio and garden area are available for dine-in service. Forza Storico recently received a one star review from a customer after bird droppings landed in a friend’s hair while dining outside. She claims the manager was “super rude” and did nothing to help. At the end of the very brief Yelp review, she added that the salmon “had no flavor.”
5 Church Atlanta owner Ayman Kamel says unity in the decision-making on the part of government officials would be key to the Georgia restaurant industry’s survival. He says the “flip flopping” and disagreements between leaders at all levels of government hurts businesses, their employees, and their patrons.
Adding to the growing financial pressures being felt by restaurant owners, some establishments are choosing to close temporarily after learning employees have tested positive for the virus. Georgia restaurants are not bound by law to disclose when staff members test positive for COVID-19 and are not mandated by the state or Georgia Department of Health to close. Closing is entirely voluntary.
Dr. Carlos del Rio, an infectious disease specialist and executive associate dean of Emory University School of Medicine, told the AJC in a recent interview, “Until we have a vaccine, we need society to step up — and our window is closing.”
Update, July 16, 6 p.m.: This story was updated with new information regarding a lawsuit filed by Gov. Brian Kemp with the state to challenge Atlanta’s mask mandate and rollback restrictions.
Stay home if sick. Check the Georgia Department of Public Health website for guidance and updates on the latest number of reported COVID-19 cases.
- Keep Track of How the Coronavirus Is Impacting Atlanta’s Food Scene [EATL]
- With COVID-19 Cases Surging, Two Atlanta Restaurants Shift How the Dining Rooms Operate [EATL]
- Kemp’s office files lawsuit seeking to block Atlanta mask mandate [AJC]
- Kemp’s ban of mask mandates puts Georgia on collision course with its cities [AJC]