ATLANTA – Georgia’s governor is removing many remaining requirements for social distancing and masked employees from businesses, saying that the state’s efforts to control COVID-19 have been successful even as its vaccination rate lags and federal officials continue to warn that the infection rates remain relatively high.
While Gov. Brian Kemp was touring the Mexican border in Texas on Friday, the Republican’s office released a new executive order that takes effect Saturday and runs through May 30.
“Businesses across the Peach State have followed COVID-19 restrictions for over a year to keep their employees and customers safe, and will now be able to make informed decisions about how their business operations move forward,” said Mallory Blount, a spokesperson for Kemp. “Georgians know best how to protect themselves and their families, and they deserve to be able to return to normal.”
But public health experts fear another surge, possibly driven by more infectious variants of the virus.
“Too soon,” Emory University infectious disease expert Carlos del Rio wrote on Twitter, pointing to federal statistics. “We still have ‘substantial transmission’ and our percent of population fully vaccinated is low.”
More than 6 million doses of vaccines have been given in Georgia, but the state ranks 44th in doses administered per capita to people 18 and older.
Georgia still ranks among the 10 worst states per capita for newly reported deaths and among the 10 worst states per capita for hospitalized COVID-19 patients There was a big increase in school-based clusters in mid-April, right after Easter, when many students got their spring break. One Augusta elementary school sent all its in-person students home for a week on Friday citing high COVID-19 infections.
Kemp says social distancing is now only “strongly encouraged,” not required.
Georgia never had a statewide mask mandate, although Kemp eventually allowed local governments to impose them if infection rates were high. But Kemp had imposed mask mandates on many businesses. Except for in the health care sector, he lifted those mandates on Friday. Tattoo artists, for example, no longer have to wear a mask as of Saturday.
Kemp is far from alone in easing restrictions, though, as even leaders in many states that have been far more cautious are making the same moves.
Among other notable changes to Georgia’s rules: Restaurants are no longer required to have any distance between tables or to have any employees masked. They can also serve patrons who are standing up. Kemp had earlier cut the required distance between tables from 6 feet (1.8 meters) to 3.5 feet (1.1 meters).
Movie theaters are no longer required to enforce any seating distance between unrelated customers, down from 3 feet (0.9 meters) and an earlier 6 feet.
Gyms no longer have to use contactless check-in, provide wipes, enforce social distancing, require 6 feet between people in fitness classes or encourage the use of face coverings.
Jeremy Bond, the brand ambassador of Highway 55 in Kingsland, said he still requires social distancing in his restaurant.
“We have 3.5 feet between every table. We’re still doing every other table still,” Bond said. “We have a big enough restaurant.”
He also requires most employees to wear masks.
“We’ll leave the cooks at their own discretion, because it’s hot back there,” Bond said.
Bond said he’ll continue to evaluate the number of cases and use that as a guide to lift restrictions.
“In a few weeks, we can lift them depending on if things go in a positive manner,” Bond said. “In two weeks, you’re going to see cases jump as restrictions are eased.”
After earlier repealing a 50-person limit on gatherings when people are closer than 6 feet, Kemp removed many of the remaining requirements on live performance venues and conventions. Convention workers no longer have to wear a mask. They no longer have to screen convention attendees, require preregistration, enforce social distancing on transportation, stagger attendance times, set up one-way aisles, or segregate attendees of different events.
The move came days after the Atlanta United soccer team and Atlanta Braves baseball team announced their venues would go back to full capacity next month. Friday, Atlanta Motor Speedway announced it would allow patrons to fill grandstands at the July NASCAR race.
Georgia’s eight state-run mass vaccination sites are closing May 21 following what officials called “a notable decrease in demand,” As of Monday, the sites will no longer give first doses of the Pfizer vaccine. Instead, they will offer second doses of Pfizer and the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine. They are allowing anyone to drive up without appointments.
Kemp earlier extended through May 30 the underlying state of emergency that gives him extraordinary legal powers.
Democrats have been critical of Kemp’s approach, which he has said aims to balance public health and the economy. On Friday, Democratic Party spokesperson Maggie Chambers said it was the wrong time for further loosening.
“Brian Kemp has failed Georgia at every stage in this pandemic, and now he’s ending even the most bare-bones restrictions keeping Georgians safe,” she said in a statement. “Come 2022, Georgia voters will remember that he put politics over their health and safety again and again.”