To be clear, Mayor Jonathan McCollar’s emergency declaration Thursday night gives him authority to impose a curfew, but he has not imposed one. He didn’t order Statesboro’s restaurants closed, either, but he did recommend that they limit themselves to fewer than 10 dine-in customers at a time.
McCollar’s declaration of a state of emergency in response to the COVID-19 pandemic is similar to the declaration Bulloch County Commission Chairman Roy Thompson had issued Tuesday. Both declarations authorize the local-government executives to, if needed, declare curfews and waive procedural regulations.
The declarations also localize prohibitions on price gouging, which were activated statewide by Gov. Brian Kemp’s March 14 declaration of a public health state of emergency.
“Our city and nation are in an unprecedented moment in time,” McCollar said in a brief speech announcing his decision via the city’s website. “The purpose of this declaration is to ensure that we’re doing everything humanly possible to save lives in the city that we love. COVID-19 is a common enemy, and we must come together as a community to defend the city that we love.”
He couched his recommendation to restaurant owners in a statement of general advice like that given repeatedly by public health officials.
“We are strongly suggesting that you continue to use good hygienic practices and wash your hands routinely and promote social distancing,” the mayor said. “We are strongly encouraging our local restaurants and businesses to utilize their online order and carry-out options in an effort to keep their onsite patron numbers below 10.
“We are also strongly encouraging that all events that will have more than 10 people be rescheduled to a time period that is beyond the timeframe of this deadly virus,” he continued.
Several restaurants in town, notably fast-food places such as Arby’s and Chick-fil-A, had closed their dining rooms and shifted to drive-thru and delivery-only operations by Friday. But that is a more difficult proposition for unique local restaurants that are predominantly places to dine-in and socialize.
At Gnat’s Landing, some tables have been removed to help encourage patrons to keep their physical distance, said general manager Kaleo Lyles. The management now requires employees who serve food and bus tables to wear gloves and change them every 30 minutes. Employees also sanitize menus after every use.
Since dine-in traffic had fallen sharply, the recommendation of fewer than 10 customers at a time was already the norm within each of the restaurant’s rooms and the deck, he said. But that means the restaurant will still seat more than 10 people overall.
“We’re trying to limit to 10 or less per room, essentially, per side,” Lyles told the Statesboro Herald. “We’re trying to keep ample distance, as much as we can, whenever people are coming in and deciding to dine-in with us.”
Lyles is a partner with Al Chapman III in owning both Gnat’s Landing and Del Sur Taqueria and Cantina – which are across South Main Street from each other – and also the Blue Room.
Whatever the course of the pandemic, the University System of Georgia’s order for most classes to be taught exclusively online for the rest of this semester will decimate Statesboro’s college-age customer count. So Lyles and Chapman have closed the Blue Room, a bar and live music venue near Paulson Stadium, indefinitely.
But Gnat’s and Del Sur remained open Friday with no plans to close the dining rooms. The owners are now having a professional cleaning service apply weekly sanitizing treatments to surfaces throughout the restaurants, Lyles said.
To encourage to-go orders, the restaurateurs have removed a fee usually assessed on credit card purchases. The popular trivia nights at these Blue Mile restaurants are now being conducted online. Karaoke is cancelled.
Gnat’s Landing alone usually employs about 120 people through the week on various shifts, but daily staffing has been cut in half.
“Really right now we’re just employing the people that are asking us to work,” Lyles said. “So that’s one of the reasons we’re staying open, because we’ve got people saying, like, ‘Guys, I have to work.’”
These restaurants have recently re-established relationships with Boro Takeout Express and DoorDash.
“We did order up on all our to-go supplies, in case we decide to do to-go only,” Lyles said. “I think we’re kind of holding off because that will cut back on a lot of staff.”
Skip Alford, Statesboro-Bulloch Chamber of Commerce president, said he believes the city’s and county’s responses to COVID-19, including the mayor’s recommendation to restaurants, have been “rock solid” and are meant to protect the public, including business owners.
“From what I understand, the restaurants are following the guidance given to them, and I haven’t heard of any case yet where somebody’s wondering why some place is open or why it’s not,” Alford said Friday afternoon. “I think we’re getting enough information out where everybody understands that the measures being taken are to help and to protect them.”
City’s own steps
The city has been encouraging utility customers to pay their bills online or by phone or use the drive-thru and drop boxes at City Hall. Officials have ordered regular cleanings of all city-owned buildings frequented by the public.
A week ago, McCollar issued a temporary halt on utility disconnections for overdue bills. He then extended the suspension of disconnections to 30 days beginning last Monday.
McCollar signed the emergency declaration at 7:50 p.m. Thursday, March 19, as noted on the document.
“The next two weeks are critical,” he said. "What we do over the next 15 days can help to flatten the curve and slow the spread of the virus. That’s why it’s important that we remain calm, have patience and understanding, practice preventative safety measures, be considerate when buying supplies , get what you need, but don’t go overboard. … We are strong, we are Statesboro, and we can do this.”
Video of McCollar’s emergency declaration address and other pandemic-related updates from City Hall can be found at www.statesboroga.gov/covid-19.