‘Happy this is happening’: Last metro Atlanta city ends mask mandate

A sign requiring masks is taped to the door to the door of Sweet Melissa's in Decatur Monday, February 28, 2022.  STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Combined ShapeCaption
A sign requiring masks is taped to the door to the door of Sweet Melissa's in Decatur Monday, February 28, 2022. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Most businesses in Decatur started Thursday morning the same way — removing signs from their front doors saying masks were required inside.

At least one store manager said he was greeted with cheers as he removed the sign, which hadn’t been touched since last August.

“I figured I would just take the sign down real quick,” Tanner Crotty, general manager at Kelly’s Market near Decatur Square, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “And multiple people walking by started giving me some ‘Woohoos’ and some claps. Other people saying, ‘Finally.’”

Decatur, after nearly 20 months of continuous mask mandates, was the last metro Atlanta city to let its face covering policy expire. The City Commission unanimously voted Wednesday to allow the policy to end, citing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s new, less-strict guidelines.

Decatur’s policy applied to both private businesses and government buildings, and the city capped off the last wave of governments to drop mask mandates over the past few days, which includes Atlanta and multiple school districts.

“I feel like every business in the world right now is happy this is happening and they’re lifting mask mandates,” Pat Pascarella, chef and owner of The White Bull, said. He added that providing masks to employees and customers was costing about $400 a week.

Despite the policy change, Decatur residents and shoppers may still want to carry a mask. Mayor Patti Garrett emphasized that individual business owners can still require masks at their establishments.

“I would also like to point out that this doesn’t prohibit individual businesses from making a different decision,” Garrett said during the Wednesday meeting. “I’ve seen the signs (that say), ‘No shirt, no shoes, no mask, no service.’”

ExploreIn Decatur, mask mandate may fall before masks do
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Farm Burger manager Dana Harrison wears a mask while getting ready for their lunch rush in Decatur Monday, February 28, 2020. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Farm Burger manager Dana Harrison wears a mask while getting ready for their lunch rush in Decatur Monday, February 28, 2020.  STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Combined ShapeCaption
Farm Burger manager Dana Harrison wears a mask while getting ready for their lunch rush in Decatur Monday, February 28, 2020. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Decatur first adopted its mask mandate in July 2020. City leaders let it expire for a brief eight-week period last summer, but it was quickly readopted in August 2021 when COVID-19′s delta variant ran rampant.

When the policy returned, Decatur allowed businesses to opt-out by posting signs that said they would not enforce the mandate. City Manager Andrea Arnold told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the policy did not garner much controversy among residents and did not lead to any calls for police intervention — let alone any citations.

Business owners agreed, saying most customers and employees had no issues masking up while indoors. However, patience was beginning to wane over the past few weeks.

“There’s kind of a sense of reading the room a little bit — that everybody was ready to be done,” Sean Crotty, owner of Kelly’s Market, said. “With Decatur being basically the last place in the metro area (to have a mandate), it was starting to grow old for most folks.”

Arnold said the CDC’s new guidelines, which were announced last Friday, shift emphasis away from confirmed COVID-19 cases and instead focus on hospital capacities. She said DeKalb County falls into the CDC’s “low” community risk level.

“At the low level, the CDC does not have a recommendation for face covering,” Arnold said during Wednesday’s meeting. “Rather, the CDC emphasizes promoting vaccinations, improving ventilation in public indoor spaces and ensuring access to testing.”

ExploreComplete Coverage: Coronavirus in Georgia

After peaking in late December, COVID-19 cases have continued to drop throughout metro Atlanta. According to the latest data from the DeKalb County Board of Health, confirmed infections dropped by more than 66% over a 14-day period in mid-February.

Arnold said DeKalb County’s vaccination rate is still an “area of vulnerability” for the city, adding that the county’s 58% vaccination rate is “shamefully low.” That’s slightly above the statewide rate of 55%, but it lags behind the nation’s 69%. About 87% of full-time city employees are vaccinated, which the city partially credits to a policy that requires vaccination or weekly COVID-19 testing.

Garrett and commissioners urged residents against “mask shaming” people if they choose to still cover their face in public places. Mayor Pro Tem Tony Powers said he believes residents know how much risk they are willing to take.

“I trust that many people will still continue to do what they feel comfortable doing and what they feel will keep themselves and their families and others safe,” he said.

Most business owners the AJC contacted Thursday said it wasn’t their place to police people’s choices, and they’re glad they can shift their focus back to operating their kitchens, bars and stores. They also said some employees are ready to return to providing customer service with a smile that customers can actually see.

“We’re trying to be personal with our guests, and it kind of gets lost (with masks),” Pascarella said. “You can’t see a server’s smile, you can’t see a guest’s smile and that kind of destroys the ambiance of a restaurant.”