SAVANNAH, Ga. (WSAV) – Gov. Brian Kemp signed an executive order Thursday effectively exempting local businesses from strict COVID-19 restrictions.

“Local governments will not be able to force businesses to be the city’s mask police, vaccine police or any other burdensome restriction that will only lead to employees being let go, revenue tanking and businesses closing their doors,” the Georgia governor said.

Reporters asked whether the order was issued due to decisions being made in the Hostess City and Georgia’s capital.

“Yes, I have been concerned about what we’re hearing out of Savannah and Atlanta,” he answered.

Due to the recent rise in COVID-19 cases, Savannah Mayor Van Johnson issued a mandate requiring masks in government buildings, hospitals, early childhood centers, elementary and secondary schools, guided tours and federally regulated transportation.

Earlier this week, he said additional restrictions would be forthcoming — possibly altering the mask mandate or canceling public events.

Local store owners say they don’t think the majority of businesses could survive returning back to more restrictive measures.

Debi Christiansen, the owner of Debi’s Restaurant on Bay, said without her family, their store would have had to shut down.

“It’s really been tough. We’ve been in business since 1972. We had just moved into our new location and business was just starting to get good and COVID came in and shut everything down,” Christiansen explained.

The Savannah restaurant owner is one of many small business owners who invested everything hoping to make it through the pandemic, only to continue to still face other ongoing challenges.

“I know everyone is having a hard time but it’s affecting everybody,” Christiansen said. “We’re having a hard time getting our food deliveries, they’re always out of stuff, the prices have gone up, they’re having a hard time keeping their employees; which it just trickles down.”

Lisa Bolack, a small business owner, said rising rent prices are also driving a lot of owners out who are now facing payments from the loans they got during the pandemic.

“Especially on Broughton Street, there are a lot of empty storefronts, and in a time like this with the pandemic, I think it is very important to keep things affordable so that we don’t see more empty store fronts,” Bolack added.

She said reinstating restrictions for small businesses could have financial implications.

“If the mayor were to mandate the masks for small businesses, we’d really have to look into that,” Bollack said. “We want people to feel comfortable shopping since we’ve suffered so much in the past year but we also always want to do the right thing as well.”

Christiansen also added her concern for how businesses could continue to adapt: “If you’re limited to your seating and you’re used to filling up and you’re limited; everything is limited. It’ll impact business, it will hurt us for sure, but you know getting sick with COVID would hurt too.”

Kemp said businesses are free to follow local orders if they want to.

“Just as I have said from the beginning, I trust hardworking Georgians to know what is best for themselves, their families and their employees,” he added.

Johnson said the governor’s new order is “disappointing, but not surprising.” A statement from the mayor continued:

While the Governor believes he has shown leadership in ‘keeping Georgia businesses open,’ he should start by reopening the closed Department of Labor offices across the state to help Georgians still waiting for unemployment assistance or perhaps by reopening the Governor’s Mansion, which has been closed for months. Before Georgia can be the best state in which to do business, Georgia should be the best state to live free of COVID-19, and, given our high infection rates and low vaccinates rates, sadly, that is not the case. Savannah’s current order remains unchanged and in place, and additional actions will be taken as deemed necessary by Savannah’s elected servants.

Mayor Van Johnson