By Beau Evans, Capitol Beat News Service
Gov. Brian Kemp is rolling back restrictions on public gatherings and a shelter-in-place order for elderly-care facility residents that have been in place since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Set to take effect on April 8, the rollback marks the broadest lifting of COVID-19 safety measures since the governor ended a statewide shelter-in-place order was in place for about three weeks last April.
Going forward, restaurants, bars and other popular social spots will no longer face limits on the number of patrons, according to one of several executive orders Kemp signed Wednesday. Capacities in public spaces have been kept at 50 people or fewer for many months.
The amount of space people will have to keep apart can also be reduced from 6 feet to at least 3 feet in movie theaters and 3.5 feet for restaurant and bar seating. Group fitness classes in gyms will have to keep exercisers at least 6 feet apart.
Shelter-in-place orders for residents in Georgia long-term care facilities, which have been in place since mid-March of 2020, will be lifted starting on April 8.
Kemp’s latest order also bars local police officers from shutting down businesses that refuse to comply with the new scaled-back distancing and sanitization rules.
Additionally, the order allows state government employees and public-school teachers to take up to 8 hours off work without using vacation or sick time in order to receive COVID-19 vaccines.
Georgia’s public health emergency, which allows Kemp to continue issuing executive orders on COVID-19, will be extended through the end of April.
The upcoming restrictions rollback comes as Georgia makes headway in vaccinating the state’s nearly 11 million residents after opening up eligibility to everyone in the state 16 years of age and older on March 25.
Nearly 3.8 million vaccines have been administered in Georgia as of Wednesday afternoon, roughly 80% of the number of doses shipped by the federal government, according to state Department of Public Health data.
Georgians can pre-register for a vaccine appointment at myvaccinegeorgia.com even if they do not yet qualify under the governor’s eligibility criteria. They will be notified once they qualify and scheduled for an appointment.
State officials have opened nine mass vaccination sites in Atlanta, Macon, Albany, Savannah, Columbus, Waycross and Bartow, Washington and Habersham counties.
Kemp has long prioritized balancing COVID-19 restrictions with keeping businesses open in Georgia, touting the state’s improved economy amid the pandemic compared to many places elsewhere in the U.S. Critics have slammed him for not taking more drastic steps to curb the virus’ spread.
The governor has also faced backlash for not imposing a statewide mask mandate, as well as moving to block local governments like Atlanta and Savannah from adopting mask requirements earlier in the pandemic. President Joe Biden’s administration has urged state officials to impose mask mandates.
More than 852,000 people had tested positive for COVID-19 in Georgia as of Wednesday afternoon, with about 207,000 more reported positive antigen tests indicating likely positive results. The virus has killed 16,607 Georgians.