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Restaurant patios along the Eastside Beltline at SPX Alley in the Old Fourth Ward, Atlanta
Restaurants along the Eastside Beltline at the SPX Alley complex in June 2020
Ryan Fleisher

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With the Last Remaining Restrictions Lifted, Georgia Is Officially Open for Business

But was the state ever really closed? Here’s the latest breakdown of Georgia’s reopening from March 2020 to the present

Beth McKibben is the editor and staff reporter for Eater Atlanta and has been covering food and cocktails locally and regionally for over 12 years.

The subject line of an April 7 press release from Gov. Brian Kemp’s office said it all: “Georgia is Open for Business” effective April 8, 2021. The executive order from the governor lifted the ban on large gatherings, eliminated the remaining shelter-in-place requirements for vulnerable Georgia residents, and reduced social distancing requirements at bars, restaurants, and movie theaters from six feet to a paltry 42 inches (3 feet, 6 inches) between seated parties.

Then, effective May 1, 2021, the governor removed the remaining social distancing requirements at bars and restaurants and eliminated masks requirements for customer-facing staff like servers and bartenders. However, restaurants and bars can continue to individually implement these and other safety measures, including requiring both staff and patrons to wear masks and limiting capacity.

But was Georgia ever really closed for business?

Eater documented the reopening of the state’s restaurants and businesses throughout 2020 into the current year. The timeline below follows Georgia’s brief statewide shutdown and highly controversial reopening last spring along with other notable dates of subsequent easing of restrictions on businesses and restaurants from March 2020 to the present.

Closing down the state

March 23, 2020

The governor ordered restaurant dining rooms and bars closed and to open only for takeout and delivery.

April 1, 2020

Georgia schools required to remain closed through the end of the school year.

April 3, 2020 - April 24, 2020

Georgia closed businesses and asked the general public to shelter in place.

Reopening Georgia businesses begins

April 20, 2020

Kemp laid out his reopening plan for Georgia businesses. The plan included allowing restaurants to resume dine-in service on April 27 under a strict set of 39 safety requirements. Under this particular order, no local municipality was allowed to implement stricter measures than those laid out by the governor. The reopening news received a stunning rebuke by former President Donald Trump and set up a months-long power struggle between the governor and the Atlanta mayor, which later lands the two in court.

Atlanta restaurant owners were quick to react to the controversial news of Georgia’s aggressive reopening plans last April. Most owners cited serious concerns over health and safety for their employees and patrons as the biggest factor for holding off on reopening for dine-in service.

April 24, 2020

The first retail businesses, like hair and nail salons, could begin reopening with limited capacity

April 27, 2020

Restaurants were allowed to reopen with 10 people per 500 square feet and parties of no more than six people. Bars remained closed. All customer-facing workers are required to wear masks. This provision remains in place.

May 12, 2020

Capacity limits eased again for restaurants to 10 people per 300 square feet and parties of no more than ten people.

June 1, 2020

Bars were allowed to reopen at no more than 35 percent capacity.

*June 16, 2020

Restaurants and most retail businesses in Georgia were no longer required to limit the number of people inside, only to maintain six feet between parties.

The mask mandate debate

Despite record-breaking numbers sparked by the state’s aggressive reopening last spring, Georgia never enacted a statewide mask mandate. Kemp called it a “bridge too far,” but continued to urge people to wear masks. In July, the governor filed a lawsuit against Atlanta mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms after she required masks be worn inside commercial businesses, on city and government property, and in public spaces within the city and inside Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.

The lack of a state mask mandate set up hosts, servers, and bartenders working in Georgia restaurants to face abusive interactions with diners refusing to wear masks and put front-of-house staff at greater risk for contracting the virus.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) strongly recommends people wear masks in public or indoors when not inside their homes. Fully vaccinated people should also continue to wear masks in public places to protect unvaccinated or vulnerable people until further notice.

A federal mandate from the CDC and the Biden administration now requires masks be worn on all forms of public transportation. This includes MARTA trains and buses and the Atlanta streetcar as well as ride sharing services and taxis.

August 17, 2020

Local mask mandates officially allowed in Georgia

Kemp eventually withdrew the lawsuit his administration filed against Bottoms in August, allowing local municipalities to impose mask requirements in public and on government property but not inside private businesses. That provision remains in place, which also allows owners of restaurants and other private businesses to opt out of enforcing a local mask mandate on their property.

Vaccine rollout begins, capacity restrictions disappear

Despite being some of the first essential workers asked to return to their jobs in Georgia last spring, restaurant and bar employees weren’t prioritized by the state for the COVID-19 vaccine during the first few weeks of the initial rollout.

Even with the recent decline in overall COVID-19 cases throughout the country, health experts warn that lifting restrictions and ending mask mandates too soon — and before at least 70 percent of the population is fully vaccinated — could lead to yet another surge brought on by highly infectious variants like B.1.1.7 now widespread in communities across America.

According to the April 30 update from the Georgia Department of Public Heath, 25 percent of the state’s residents are fully vaccinated, with 35 percent having received a first dose of the vaccine. At least 70 percent of the population needs to be fully vaccinated to achieve herd immunity.

On May 21, nine mass vaccination sites in Georgia will cease operations. The FEMA-run mass vaccination center at Mercedes Benz Stadium in downtown Atlanta remains open for now. No appointments are necessary.

January and February 2021

Vaccine rollout begins in Georgia, prioritizing healthcare workers, first responders, people living and working in longterm care facilities, and adults 65 years and older.

March 8, 2021

Georgia expanded vaccine criteria to teachers and K-12 school staff, including people working for private schools, preschools, and daycares, adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities and their caregivers, and parents of children with complex medical conditions.

March 15, 2021

All people 55 years and older and people 16 years and older with a number of high risk medical conditions, like hypertension, asthma, and cancer, or individuals who are considered overweight (BMI 25 to 29.9) or obese (BMI 30 and over) became eligible for the vaccine.

*March 16, 2021

The few business capacity restrictions in place were further eased by the governor, including for bars, which no longer need to limit the number of people inside.

March 25, 2021

All Georgia residents age 16 years and up regardless of their health became eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. Pfizer is currently the only vaccine authorized for children 16 years and up, while Moderna and Johnson and Johnson are authorized for people 18 years and older.

April 8, 2021

Ban on large gatherings lifted, shelter-in-place requirements for vulnerable Georgia residents lifted, and social distancing requirements at bars, restaurants, and movies theaters now 42 inches (3 feet, 6 inches) between seated parties.

Local mask mandates allowed to remain in place.

May 1, 2021

An executive order by the governor removed the remaining social distancing requirements for restaurants, bars, and movie theaters. Restaurant and bar staff working front-of-house positions, like hosts, servers, and bartenders, are no longer required by the state to wear masks. Individual businesses can continue to implement these and other safety measures, including limiting capacity indoors and requiring staff and patrons to wear masks indoors.

Local mask mandates allowed to remain in place.

The CDC lists indoor dining with little or no social distancing in its highest risk category for the spread of COVID-19. Outdoor dining remains the safer option, especially when social distancing measures are in place. Fully vaccinated people should continue to avoid crowds (even outdoors) and wear masks indoors at restaurants, bars, and other businesses to protect potentially unvaccinated and vulnerable people.

Read the latest executive order in full below:

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