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ACC commission votes for earlier last call for alcohol, ordinance faces immediate legal challenge

By Joe Johnson

The Athens-Clarke County Board of Commissioners Thursday night voted to impose an earlier last call for alcohol time from 2 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Restaurants will still be allowed to serve food past last call.

The measure, which passed by a vote of 8-1 during a specially-called meeting by Mayor Kelly Girtz, is an attempt to limit the spread of COVID-19.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has identified bars as potential virus hotspots because patrons stand or are seated close together there.

As of Thursday, there were 1,591 confirmed cases of the disease in the county, with 16 deaths, according to the Georgia Department of Health. Girtz said the measure was considered with the prospect in mind that thousands of students set to return to the University of Georgia next month will be packing the bars downtown.

“Many of our emergency room and critical care beds are consumed with bar-related and drinking-related challenges during late-night hours, while are hospitals are at an all-time low for critical care bed capacity, and we need to preserve that capacity to the greatest degree possible,” Girtz told Classic City News prior to the vote.

Almost immediately after the vote, attorneys representing five downtown bars e-filed a lawsuit to Clarke County Superior Court that asks a judge for a declaratory judgment that the mayor and commissioners exceeded their authority by issuing the early last-call ordinance that also requires masks or face coverings to be worn while inside commercial establishments.

The lawsuit, filed on behalf of the owners of On the Rocks, Moonshine Bar, Cloud Bar, Buddha Bar, and Centro Athens claims that the ordinances are unconstitutional and unenforceable because  “they are more restrictive than Governor Brian Kemp’s public health emergency orders that recommend, but do not require, the use of masks and allow bars to remain open and operate under subject to certain mandatory criteria.”

Additionally, it argues that the county ordinances “create uncertainty for Plaintiffs and other citizens and bars in Athens-Clarke County.

The e-filed civil action becomes official after the Clarke County Clerk of Courts opens for business Friday morning and marks it as having been received.

One of the attorneys, Morris Wiltshire, said the lawsuit was already prepared prior to the board of commission meeting, “and we were just waiting for them to vote so that we could file.”

He said a copy was also emailed to the county attorney’s office.

The lawsuit names the Athens-Clarke government as a whole and Girtz and each of the nine county commissioners individually, as well as Police Chief Cleveland Spruill Sr., whose department has been advising residents of the mask ordinance and handing out masks to people without face coverings. ACCPD also has an Alcohol Compliance Unit that might be tasked with issuing citations to people who violate the ordinances.

The lawsuit also seeks an emergency temporary restraining order and interlocutory and permanent injunctions restricting the county from enforcing the ordinances and from enacting future ordinances “that are inconsistent with Governor Kemp’s executive orders.”

Girtz said when drafting the last call ordinance, he recognized that college students tend to frequent bars from 10 p.m. on, and the ordinance would minimize their chances of getting infected with the coronavirus, which causes COVID-19.

“People are much less conscious of risk when they are young and drunk,” the mayor said.

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