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The Long Game

By Johnathan McGinty | Photos by Evermore Photo Co. and JenWolf/Shutterstock


Athens eyes return of football with optimism, apprehension


At first glance, you might not expect Little King’s Shuffle Club to be an ideal spot for a Georgia football fan to enjoy a few cold beverages during a fun-filled fall weekend in Athens. It caters more to the local community, has a distinct lack of televisions and is populated by quirky, funky artwork that gives it a distinctly Athenian vibe.

That said, owner Joey Tatum said his place is known to pick up a couple of downtrodden and dejected Bulldog fans a few times a year.

“I get more folks for a loss than I do for a win because they don’t want to see any TVs,” Tatum said with a laugh. “I guess they’re just thinking, ‘Get me away from that game so I don’t have to see it on replay over and over again!’”

Win or lose, Tatum and a host of Athens restaurant and bar owners are more than happy to hand over a cold Miller High Life to the hordes of Bulldog faithful who make Saturdays in Athens a fall tradition. And there’s no doubt that Georgia’s success on the gridiron spills over into the broader Athens community, making it truly a testament to the notion that a rising tide lifts all boats.

“(Georgia football games) bring a huge amount of people downtown to stay at hotels, eat at restaurants and enjoy the hospitality,” said David Lynn, the director of the Athens Downtown Development Authority. “Any college town sees significant benefits from a big, successful football team, especially one with UGA’s status. For our hospitality industry, this is their Christmas.”

If it’s Christmas, there are plenty of gifts to go around.

According to the Athens Convention & Visitor’s Bureau, an average home game weekend generates 21,960 nights for the community’s hotels. It’s a level of capacity that is unrivaled throughout the year, even when taking into consideration other major events like the Twilight Criterium or the university’s graduation ceremonies. Additionally, a 2012 study from the ACVB noted that tourism generated nearly $250 million in revenue for the community, with the lion’s share coming from those six Saturdays in the fall.

However, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, the requirements for social distancing and the resulting economic consequences have cast a pall over the upcoming college football slate. This promises to be a season unlike any other, as the University of Georgia plans to cap attendance in Sanford Stadium at 20% to 25% of its 92,746-seat capacity.

Additionally, while football brings ample revenue to college towns across the country, optimism and apprehension are waging an internal war for the proprietors of several restaurants, bars and shops in The Classic City.

Tim Kelly is the owner of The Rook & Pawn, a popular board game cafe in downtown Athens, and one of a cohort of owners of The National, an award-winning restaurant headed by renowned chef Peter Dale. Traditionally, The National enjoys an overflowing dining room fueled by a steady stream of visitors on a football weekend, particularly for dinner and drinks on a Friday night prior to a Georgia game.

Currently, though, it is not allowing in-person dining inside the restaurant, only a limited number of outdoor spaces on its patio, in addition to take-out options. Kelly said the staff has worked hard to adhere to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations throughout the pandemic, and that makes serving a large number of guests, like one would expect on a football weekend, challenging.

“As a downtown business owner, you have all these different considerations that you never had to think about before the pandemic,” Kelly said. “You feel like (Georgia football returning) is something you’re going to celebrate and would normally celebrate. So, this is great with a return to a sense of normalcy, but how do you take part in that safely and smartly?”

While there is a definite economic benefit that comes with an extra 100,000 visitors in town ready to eat, drink and cheer on the Bulldogs, Athens-Clarke County Mayor Kelly Girtz acknowledged he has deep reservations about football this fall.

More people moving about the town increases the chances for the spread of COVID-19, as evidenced by the early numbers coming from UGA. Within the first four weeks of students returning to campus at Georgia, the university alone reported more than 3,000 new cases.

For comparison, that is more than twice as many cases as Athens-Clarke County as a whole had accumulated from March 1 through July 31. Given those dynamics, Girtz doesn’t believe Georgia, or any SEC school, should allow fans to attend games this year given the health risks to the local community.

“I mention this to a lot of people in the context of football games that it’s not so much the inside-the-stadium presence that is so much of a concern, but it’s everything that is peripheral to college football,” he said. “That means the tailgating, congregating, bar crowds and all of those things we just know now in terms of aerosol dispersal and the transmission of the virus that are just not safe.”

Indeed, the very things that give game day –as well as other community staples like AthFest or the Hot Corner Celebration – such a vibrant atmosphere are the same things which foster the spread of COVID-19. That’s why several Athens businesses have worked hard to try and keep the doors open while being mindful of social distancing requirements.

Little King’s, for instance, has a large, open-air patio that allows Tatum to accommodate visitors as safely as possible in today’s environment. But his other bar, the iconic Manhattan Cafe, features closed, cramped quarters that are part of the place’s charm but feel considerably risky during times like these. As such, he said he’s feeling the economic pressures associated with the pandemic.

“It’s very painful and very stressful at this point in trying to keep a business alive, and it’s gotten real old,” Tatum said. “We’re going into month four of reopening, and things are still terrible. I understand why they’re terrible, and I’m not questioning that at all, but the reality is no one would ever open a business if you saw the numbers, because it wouldn’t make any sense at all. It’s just a matter of treading water and seeing if we can’t get ourselves out of this thing.”

To support those dealing with the economic crunch, Athens-Clarke County is offering a round of loans and grants geared to local small businesses. These programs are supported through various funding sources, including the federal CARES Act and local tax revenues.

Fortunately, Lynn noted that many casual restaurants which offer to-go options are doing well, with some even reporting increased sales of nearly 25 percent year over year. Additionally, he said parking revenues have started to trend upward, a sign that more people are willing to return downtown.

Girtz echoed that optimism, pointing out that this is merely a moment in time for the community that will require everyone to make some sacrifices.

“What I’ll say is that I have tried, in this season, to err on the side of caution around health and safety, so if we forgo millions of dollars of revenue but that means we save lives, then it’s worth it,” Girtz said. “I’m always playing the long game in this job, so for me that means wanting people healthy and alive, and to have a rebound next year.”