ST. SIMONS ISLAND – With the sun high in the sky this week, a group of teenagers played touch football on the hard-packed sand of St. Simons Island’s East Beach, while couples and the occasional attended dog walked the ample beachfront at low tide.
Meanwhile, a multi-agency team of law enforcement officers kept watch by helicopter, in two-person all-terrain vehicle teams and in groups of officers posted at the beach’s entrance.
That was the scene as Glynn County commissioners, along with other local government officials both on the coast and inland, pleaded with Gov. Brian Kemp to amend his shelter-in-place order to close down the beaches and state recreational areas to contain the spread of COVID-19.
Kemp extended his prior shelter-in-place order to last until the end of the month at a Wednesday Capitol press conference. While he banned most short-term rentals through April 30, he did not grant the request of local government officials from Georgia’s coast and mountains to close public beaches and state parks.
Tybee Island Mayor Shirley Sessions drew national media coverage after she said in a statement Saturday that Kemp’s order reopening the beaches was a reckless mandate. She told WJCL after Wednesday’s announcement that she hopes people don’t jeopardize their health by going to the beach this weekend.
At least one local official from the coast was glad to have the rental restrictions included in the governor’s revised order.
“I was always in favor of the beach being open for exercise,” said Glynn County Commissioner Peter Murphy, whose district includes St. Simons Island. “My thought was to have a brief period of time in the morning and afternoon, so obviously I’m all in favor of exercise. We as a commission voted to prohibit short-term rentals and hotels, motels, bed-and-breakfasts, and now it looks like we’re all in agreement. So, that’s a good thing.”
At the island pier early this week, Allison Turk rode her bicycle to take a few photographs of the wrecked freighter Golden Ray, which is in the process of deconstruction where it capsized last September in the St. Simons Sound.
Like the East Beach parking area, lots in the Pier Village were half empty, an unusual circumstance on a pleasant spring day.
“It’s a shock to see all the empty parking spaces here,” Turk said. “It’s a fine balance. I think we have to hang on a little bit longer before we can let the stores open back up.”
Most people out and about Tuesday afternoon on St. Simons kept their distance from each other, though gatherings of seven or eight people weren’t uncommon.
“The four-wheelers, the police, have been patrolling (the beach) — they don’t let anybody really stop,” Turk said. “I think you’ve got more space here than you do on the street or the sidewalk to stay away from people. … Saturday, I saw them pull some kids out of — the kids were together, but they would not let them play on their boogie board in the ocean way up at the other end of East Beach. So, they are doing a good job in patrolling, I think.”
Local officials initially closed the beaches March 20 as they expressed worry about public areas becoming places where COVID-19 could spread, creating a danger for residents and putting a burden on local resources. Then the governor reopened them with his order.
Kemp’s chief of staff, Tim Fleming, stirred up a hornets’ nest before Kemp’s initial shelter-in-place order when he posted on Facebook that people should go to the beach, a lake or state park.
“They are all open and despite what the media is reporting there have been no issues on Georgia beaches or lakes today,” Fleming wrote. “People have to be able to get out of the house to get fresh air and exercise. As we have seen this past week the media will do anything to create chaos.”
Quote-tweeting a person who screen-capped Fleming’s post, St. Simons Island Republican state Rep. Jeff Jones tweeted Monday, “Except Tim, we in SE GA prefer everyone just stay put until this CV19 has passed, keep your virus at home, thank you very much!”
Monday, the Glynn County Commission sent a letter to Kemp asking him to reconsider his order that left the beaches open because it could have a chilling effect on the county government’s ability to contain the virus.
“For instance, the state’s decision to open the beaches back up to the public, combined with the executive order’s suspension of Glynn County’s ability to address short-term rental matters, encourages travel into Glynn County from other areas and increases the likelihood that COVID-19 will spread in our community at a greater rate,” the commissioners stated.
While vehicles at the beach and in the village this week sported tags from Florida, Kentucky, Michigan, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota and Virginia, most people taking advantage of the open public areas appeared to be locals.
Inland, representatives of a dozen north Georgia county governments this week signed on to a letter similar to the one sent by their coastal counterparts, imploring Kemp to protect their rural mountain communities by closing state parks. They argue that visitors from outside the area see their communities as a safe refuge during the pandemic, but that influx of outsiders has the potential to become a severe threat to their county health resources.
“Our communities simply do not have enough hospital beds or medical personnel to care for the inflated population,” the commissioners wrote. “Similarly, there is not enough food, dry goods, fuel and other supplies to adequately provide for the numbers we are experiencing.”
In his announcement Wednesday, Kemp acknowledged the concerns of local officials worried the state is becoming a vacation destination even as the state Department of Public Health continues to report a deepening novel coronavirus crisis.
Georgia Recorder reporter Stan Dunlap contributed to this story.