What will the easing of restrictions mean for businesses and the pandemic?

The Plaza Theatre is operating at about 30% capacity with many covid safety precautions in place Wednesday, April 7, 2021.  The venue only allows online purchase of tickets, rotates seats and cleans between every show and has developed an electronic system to ordering concessions from seats.  Despite capacity restrictions lifting on Thursday, the theatre will continue to operate at 30% for the foreseeable future.  (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
The Plaza Theatre is operating at about 30% capacity with many covid safety precautions in place Wednesday, April 7, 2021. The venue only allows online purchase of tickets, rotates seats and cleans between every show and has developed an electronic system to ordering concessions from seats. Despite capacity restrictions lifting on Thursday, the theatre will continue to operate at 30% for the foreseeable future. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman for the AJC

Credit: Jenni Girtman for the AJC

For months, the dining room tables at South City Kitchen in Buckhead have been the state-mandated 6 feet apart for the safety of employees and guests. And the indoor seating won’t be moving any closer today, when Gov. Brian Kemp’s new coronavirus emergency order will allow tables to be as close as 42 inches.

At Poncey-Highland’s historic Plaza Theater, black cloth draped over seats will continue to keep patrons in pods at least 7 feet apart. The 3 feet that’ll be allowed inside movie theaters feels a little too close for comfort, said Plaza owner Christopher Escobar.

Like at South City Kitchen, Escobar said his theater’s enhanced sanitation efforts also won’t change. Stepped-up cleaning, temperature checks and requiring masks while not eating has helped foster trust with customers, he said.

“We’ve come too far to drop our guard early,” Escobar said.

Lunch guests enjoy a meal while sitting on the patio at South City Kitchen Buckhead on Wednesday. Gov. Kemp's latest executive order further eases restrictions on restaurants and bars starting on Thursday. but most Atlanta restaurant operators are not in a hurry to take advantage of loosened guidelines.(Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Lunch guests enjoy a meal while sitting on the patio at South City Kitchen Buckhead on Wednesday. Gov. Kemp's latest executive order further eases restrictions on restaurants and bars starting on Thursday. but most Atlanta restaurant operators are not in a hurry to take advantage of loosened guidelines.(Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Kemp’s new order loosens COVID-19 restrictions today across many industries and ends a ban on gatherings of 50 people or more. That will have wide-ranging impacts on businesses from restaurants and convention centers to gyms and concert venues.

While many businesses across Georgia will take full advantage of the rollback, others told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution they plan no immediate changes, concerned that relaxing standards too quickly could allow the virus to sicken staff or customers.

Some said they’ll wait until more of the public can get vaccinated, including staffers. Others said they’ll loosen a little, where they think it’s safe, but plan to take it slow.

Kemp has said loosening the rules is a crucial step to returning to “normal life” and to help struggling businesses survive. It’s time, he said, pointing to the declining number of new infections from the winter peak and the increasing number of Georgians —2.9 million as of Wednesday — who have secured at least one dose of vaccine.

But cases are again rising in many other states, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and President Joe Biden have urged states to pause reopening to buy time to allow more people to get vaccinated.

ExploreHow Georgia stacks up against other Southern states on COVID-19 restrictions

Of particular concern is the rise of new strains of the virus that are more infectious and more deadly, such as the one first detected in the United Kingdom. The strain, known as B.1.1.7, is now the most common one circulating in the U.S., CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said in a White House briefing Wednesday.

Bob Bednarczyk, assistant professor of global health and epidemiology at Emory University, said that while a case can be made for targeted loosening, there should be mechanisms in place to reinstate safety protocols to address potential outbreaks.

Health experts also worry that the looser rules will send the wrong message to the public.

“I am concerned that if many people quickly back down from masking, physical distancing, or other public health measures, the numbers may start to go up again, especially when we consider the increasing spread of the variants, particularly B.1.1.7,” said Pinar Keskinocak, a professor of engineering at Georgia Tech and director of the Center for Health and Humanitarian Systems, whose work includes infectious disease modeling.

No rush to change

Under the governor’s order, many enhanced sanitation rules remain in place. Servers and restaurant staff, for example, still have to wear masks when interacting with customers.

The most significant change for restaurants is the reduction in space between tables.

Most metro Atlanta restaurant operators, however, say they are not in a hurry to expand seating capacity.

“Grindhouse Killer Burgers will not be making any changes due to the new law,” said owner Alex Brounstein.

From Varuni Napoli in Midtown, to Ray’s on the River in Sandy Springs, to Drift Oyster Bar in East Cobb, the 6-foot safety measure also will remain in place, those operators say. Their decision echoes cautionary sentiments from nearly one year ago when few restaurant owners rushed to re-open for on-premises dining despite having been given the green light.

“Over the past 12 months, we’ve forged a layer of trust with the guests. We are going to take a slow, easy approach,” said Ryan Pernice, whose RO Hospitality group includes Table & Main and Osteria Mattone in Roswell as well as Coalition Food and Beverage in Alpharetta.

Because physical barriers have been an option instead of 6-foot separation since the pandemic’s outset, the latest order doesn’t change much for places like Ray’s on the River that invested in barriers between booths last year. More recently, Buttermilk Kitchen’s Suzanne Vizethann placed an order for partitions. Once they are in place, the popular brunch spot will bring back more tables, upping capacity to 80%.

For restaurants that do plan to change table configurations, outdoors is where those will be most visible.

Most Atlanta restaurant operators, like South City Kitchen, are not in a hurry to increase capacity, as allowed under Gov. Brian Kemp's latest pandemic emergency order. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Most Atlanta restaurant operators, like South City Kitchen, are not in a hurry to increase capacity, as allowed under Gov. Brian Kemp's latest pandemic emergency order. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Fifth Group, which counts South City Kitchen, Ecco and Alma Cocina in its portfolio, will seat patios at full capacity beginning today, but only if the weather permits raising the enclosure flaps on all sides and if management is comfortable with the decision.

“We are leaving it up to the GMs, telling them, ‘You know your staff. You know your guests. Do what you think is right,’” said partner Robby Kukler.

El Ponce in Midtown and Talat Market in Summerhill are among restaurants whose indoor dining rooms remain closed and that only recently tip-toed back into on-premises service via the patio. For places like these, even adding a couple tables to the patio is a measured decision.

“We’ve already been planning for the past month of opening indoors and increasing our patio space because the City of Atlanta has granted us a parklet,” said Talat co-owner Parnass Savang. The parklet, slated for completion this Saturday, will add another four or five tables to the outdoor arrangement. “We’re trying to get the maximum seats with whatever is safest. We don’t want people to be uncomfortable,” he said.

Waiting for numbers

The governor’s order also rolls back restrictions on hair salons, tattoo parlors and tanning facilities and limits on the number of customers in a store.

Gyms and fitness centers no longer need to assign workers to patrol workout areas to enforce equipment wipe downs. They don’t need to space out workout equipment or block off every other cardio machine, but they must still regularly disinfect equipment and group fitness rooms. The executive order also cuts down on the distance required between customers in group workout classes from 10 feet to 6 feet.

Alixx Hetzel (right) co-owner, offers a gym member Kelsey Cortez (left) a hand sanitizer as she checks in at VESTA Movement Ponce in Atlanta on Wednesday. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Alixx Hetzel (right) co-owner, offers a gym member Kelsey Cortez (left) a hand sanitizer as she checks in at VESTA Movement Ponce in Atlanta on Wednesday. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com

Credit: Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com

Movie theaters can similarly reduce the distance between customers from 6 to 3 feet, and they no longer need to assign an usher to each screening room to ensure social distancing at the beginning of each movie.

Still, some business owners say they’ll wait for local case numbers to decline before unwinding many of the protocols they put in place earlier.

Escobar, the Plaza Theater owner, said he’s following guidelines from the CDC, the National Association of Theatre Owners and the City of Atlanta.

The Plaza resumed indoor screenings last September, five months after Kemp allowed theaters to reopen, capping the number of guests at roughly 28% of capacity and running UV lights between shows to help disinfect the theater, among other safety precautions. It also hosts evening drive-in movies, but Escobar said the venue has still struggled financially, especially during the winter.

Escobar said that while he appreciates Kemp trying to get out of the way of businesses, the state should provide “more consistency across the board” regarding COVID protections. He singled out the lack of state mask mandates, which he said “puts undue stress and conflict between businesses and their customers.”

“That’s the role we need the state to play, to have these rules that really make sense across the board,” he said. “It’s not like there’s a pandemic in some businesses and not others.”

‘Light at the end of the tunnel’

Concert venues no longer need to provide hand sanitizer stations or screen customers for COVID symptoms at entrances, though venues are still required to train employees on how to identify symptoms.

Venues are also still encouraged to install contactless ticket-taking and parking systems and extending breaks and intermissions to cut down on the mass of people streaming to the bathroom at the same time.

Ellen Chamberlain, owner of the Red Light Cafe in Virginia-Highland, still plans to take things slow.

Her 130-person venue, known for its jazz and Americana concerts and burlesque shows, has stayed alive during the pandemic through a mix of loans and grants.

Since July, it has opened only for Wednesday night jazz concerts. About 40 regulars will sit socially distanced at the café, which borders Piedmont Park, to hear the Gordon Vernick Quartet play several numbers — the members of the band are either vaccinated or masked themselves — before inviting other musicians on stage for a jam session.

“I think they’re really grateful to be out,” said Chamberlain of her customers. She hopes to check people’s vaccine cards once a larger chunk of the population has been vaccinated. In the meantime, she said, “we’re finally seeing a light at the end of the tunnel.”

Staff writers Helena Oliviero and Eric Stirgus contributed to this report.

Enforcement lax

Gov. Brian Kemp’s order rolling back many restrictions on Georgia businesses also eliminates the ability of law enforcement to shut down an organization for failure to comply with COVID-19 safety protocols. Individuals who violate the order may still be cited with misdemeanors. However, the state has rarely enforced the rules. A spokesman for the Georgia State Patrol said the office has answered more than 3,400 calls regarding possible violations but has issued only 21 citations since the start of the pandemic.

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