ATLANTA — Restaurants have been used to the same routine for about a year. The ones that survived spaced tables six feet apart, cut back on capacity and had employees and customers wear masks.
Now, per an executive order from Gov. Brian Kemp, Georgia restaurants no longer have to abide by the spacing requirements. Restaurant and bar workers do not have to wear masks either, according to the order that took effect May 1.
Brannon Walker, general manager at Augie's Cafe, is pleased with the loosened restrictions.
"I’m happy that it’s gone," Walker said. "Breathing in those masks and all that heat…personally, I’m excited about it. I too have had COVID. I survived COVID. I had family members succumb to the virus, but all in all, I’m glad we’re getting back to normal, getting people out and more safely.”
The new changes come at a time when the restaurant industry is just starting to recover from a financially woeful 2020. Karen Bremer, the president and CEO of the Georgia Restaurant Association, said Georgia missed out on about $5 billion in 2020 due to the pandemic. Bremer estimated close to 4,000 restaurants had to close permanently.
Now, she said, the timing is right to start lifting restrictions on the hard hit industry. She said the increasing rate in vaccinations, updated guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and warmer weather will make for an economic boon to the restaurant industry.
“Every business now has that ability to have their own rules in place," Bremer said. “The unmasking of workers is going to proceed at a gradual pace as businesses feel comfortable, their staff feels comfortable, their guests feel comfortable.”
She urged customers to have patience in heading back to restaurants due to industry-wide staffing shortages.
“Our biggest challenge right now is our workforce," Bremer said. "We are lacking somewhere between 50-75,000 workers right now. A lot of that has to do with the percentage of women that work in our industry. 52% of all restaurant workers are women. 71% of all servers are women. Traditionally, childcare and educating children fall to the women.”
Tia Burton, general manager of Goldberg's in Toco Hills, said a lot of people still feel unsafe or uncertain in coming back to work, relying on unemployment benefits or other means to get by.
Burton said her restaurant would continue to abide by safety guidelines, distancing tables and keeping employees and customers masked, for the foreseeable future.
“Until we know that everyone is vaccinated and it’s truly safe out here for all of us, we’ll continue to do what we have to do to keep others safe and ourselves safe," Burton said. "This is still too soon for us, and until we’re fully staffed and we all feel comfortable with taking our masks off, we will keep wearing them.”