SAVANNAH, Ga. (WSAV) – Savannah Mayor Van Johnson said Tuesday that he remains concerned about an uptick in local COVID-19 cases as a new order from Gov. Brian Kemp takes effect, allowing restaurants and bars to serve more patrons inside their establishments.
“Yesterday, three new deaths were reported in the Coastal Health District, one in Glynn County, and two in Chatham County,” said Johnson. “This pandemic is not over. We have seen an upward trend in the daily average of new cases in most of our counties, so we want to make sure that people know.”
Johnson says Kemp’s latest change will likely bring more people to the Hostess City. The order allows restaurants to ramp up toward full capacity with no square footage limits per patron and no limits on the size of dining parties that can be seated.
Indeed on Tuesday, he said more tourists are already here.
“You walk outside City Hall, you see people all over the place,” said Johnson. “And that’s a good thing for Savannah, generally, except that we’re in a pandemic.”
News 3 talked to Jamie Hall from Virgina who was visiting Savannah with her family.
“A lot of stuff is not open up north so we actually chose this area because more stuff is open,” Hall said.
The governor’s order also allows more people (up to 50) to be inside a bar.
The City of Savannah has been allowing outdoor dining on sidewalks and in parking spaces in front of restaurants. Johnson said it was initially done to provide business owners with some help in retaining income and to allow social distancing at the same time.
He says now, the city will extend that option to businesses through Labor Day.
The mayor also says bars will be extended the option of that same type of outdoor seating “in their parking lots but based on neighborhood input.”
“Customers must always be seated in the outdoor space,” he added.”
Johnson said interested businesses must complete a permit application online and that they are also encouraging citizens to complete an online survey regarding the outdoor options for eating and drinking establishments.
The mayor says he is encouraging visitors to take precautions to help keep Savannah safe, which includes wearing a face covering when you “are close to someone else and social distancing.”
In terms of the governor’s order Tuesday, Johnson said he would have preferred what he called a “more measured approach” but allowed Kemp is in charge. Johnson did tell reporters the city is monitoring the uptick in cases.
“I do not like the trajectory we are on,” he said, adding, “We will not hesitate to issue emergency orders if necessary to tame these increases.”
Johnson told WSAV that the city is exploring “legal” options in the face of the governor’s order just in case, but said he could not indicate at that time what any of those options might be.
More from the mayor
Johnson said that on Monday, he met with the Savannah Faith task force, and determined that places of worship will remain closed for the time being.
The mayor also said that the search for the next City Manager is ongoing. Interviews will begin in July.
He also addressed the officer-involved shooting in Atlanta that left Rayshard Brooks dead and sparked more protests and the burning down of a Wendy’s restaurant.
Johnson said he is “horrified” at the shooting and at the destruction of property in Atlanta. He said here in Savannah, the Police Use of Force task force will be announced in coming days. He said their work will begin within the next 90 to 100 days.
Mayor Johnson also addressed the recent vandalism of a statue of a Confederate general at Forsyth Park. He reminded the public that the defacing of a monument is a crime, and said that removing such statues is not up to local government.
The mayor said that we have an opportunity to tell our own stories, “to build monuments, to honor new heroes, to name new streets, and to tell the stories of our present and future, rather than just those of our past.”
He also officially announced the much talked about Savannah Disparity task force. He said he has asked former mayor Otis Johnson to lead the team. This task force will be moving forward and getting to work soon, Johnson said.
He also addressed the recent Supreme Court ruling that a federal law banning sex discrimination in the workplace now also applies to members of the LGBTQ community. He said he will soon be introducing the public to members of the LGBTQ task force, aimed at improving relationships with the LGBTQ community and the Savannah workplace.
“The City of Savannah values everyone, welcomes everyone,” Johnson said.
The mayor also gave an update on the Hotel/Motel Tax. If approved by state lawmakers, the proposed legislation would increase the tax rate for hotels, motels, and vacation rentals in the City of Savannah from 6% to 8%.
The tax money would be used to fund projects in the Canal District, waterfront improvements, Bay Street improvements and more.
“We want that money to be seen and felt in our neighborhoods,” Johnson said.
The mayor then addressed voting problems Chatham County faced last week, saying he hopes that by November, all issued are worked out.
“We will not engage in finger pointing, rock throwing, or under-the-bus throwing,” Johnson said.
He said the Savannah community deserves a fair and functioning voting system. Johnson said he has expressed his concerns to election officials. He also thanked poll workers and election personnel who worked on election day.
Johnson once again encouraged Savannahians to fill out their 2020 Census.
The mayor ended his prepared remarks with a shout out to the professionals who have been repairing city vehicles, sanitation vehicles, and police and fire vehicles. Johnson said that since January, crews have completes 1,125 preventative maintenance procedures and almost 2,600 repairs.
“Thank you for being the superheroes to our superheroes,” the mayor said.