Amid social media and other public concerns expressed about crowds seen at some Statesboro bars and restaurants recently, some business owners said they are taking steps to follow COVID-19 guidelines and keep their customers and the community safe.
Over the past few weeks, university and college students have begun to return to Statesboro in preparation for classes starting Monday. Many, after months of limits and business closures, flocked to campus-area establishments to socialize, but when photos of long lines and crowds appeared online, concerns were voiced to local media and police.
While there have been a number of area businesses reported to have a significant increase in patrons since students began returning, the landmark Dingus Magees on Chandler Road got social media interaction when someone posted photos of students standing in crowded lines outside the popular spot. The photos caught the attention of some worried parents, who reached out to the Statesboro Herald and Statesboro police for help through emails and phone calls.
“As a concerned parent of a (Georgia Southern University) student, please stop the college-town bars from allowing this to happen,” Jamie Laubenthal said in an email to a Herald reporter, which also was addressed to city and county officials and included a photo taken outside Dingus Magees last weekend.
“Clearly there is no regard for social distancing or the use of masks. The Blue Room was even worse last weekend when we moved our son into his apartment.”
The Blue Room is an entertainment venue also located near the university.
Statesboro police Chief Mike Broadhead acknowledged receiving reports of the crowds, but said officers responded and confirmed efforts were being made to follow guidelines to keep people safe from exposure to COVID-19.
Officers inspected Dingus Magees and The Blue Room, and are making routine inspections of other facilities, he said.
“We spoke with (Dingus Magees owner David Lane), who took out a third of his tables,” among other measures, Broadhead said. “He did not expect such a crowd. They had hoped for a soft opening.”
After being closed for five months due to the COVID pandemic and quarantines, the long-time Statesboro restaurant was obviously missed, Lane said.
“It was the first weekend we were open for business, and people were excited.”
While measures were taken to socially distance and limit the number of people inside, including encouraging the wearing of masks and placing signs on the doors, the outside is a different matter, he said. The restaurant, which has little parking and is located right on the street, attracts mainly walk-in traffic and is adjacent to a public street and sidewalk.
“It is a public place, and there is not much we can do about” people gathering outside, he said. “We have done everything we can.”
Broadhead confirmed the restaurant will have “signs, markings for social distancing and employees at the doors reminding patrons of the rules. There will be only six to a table,” and all bars and restaurants are expected to comply with Gov. Brian Kemp’s orders to only allow in 35 percent capacity, he said.
The Blue Room owner Kaleo Lyles said his business has taken thorough measures to be safe, including installing a special air purification system, requiring masks for staff and offering them to patrons, and taking the temperatures of both staff and customers before they are allowed to enter.
Plexiglass shields between customers and cashiers, 22 hand-sanitizing stations and several entrances and exits to cut down on lines were added as well, he said. And while most places might remove tables to discourage overcrowding, The Blue Room, a dance venue, has added tables to encourage smaller gatherings instead of a mass of patrons on the dance floor.
There is no live music inside at this time, to further discourage crowds, but “an acoustic act” outside, where more tables are located, helps keep people from bunching up, he said.
No major violations
In spite of the splash on social media and the reaction from some, Broadhead said to his knowledge, there have been no major violations by any establishment in Statesboro. Police officers routinely make their rounds to ensure businesses are in compliance. Still, individual people are more difficult to control.
“It is hard to enforce social distancing at a bar,” he said. But if someone is seen not following mandates, “we try to educate” instead of penalize them.
Still, Laubenthal believes more should be done to stop what she considers dangerous behavior.
“I realize this crosses many layers of ‘who is in charge of this mess,’ but someone has to step-up and keep these bars and kids from allowing this to happen,” she said. “I know emailing so many of you may seem desperate, but this is exactly that — a desperate situation. Somebody has to take control of the situation. If not, the school may end up closing by Labor Day.”
Kemp’s latest executive order continues mandates that “require social distancing, bans gatherings of more than 50 people unless there is six feet between each person (and) outlines mandatory criteria for businesses,” according to the governor’s website.
Herald reporter Holli Deal Saxon may be reached at (912) 489-9414.