Social distancing takes a coastal holiday after Kemp lifts restrictions

By: - May 4, 2020 7:30 am

Starting Wednesday, people visiting restaurants, bars and other businesses in Savannah’s riverside entertainment district will be legally required by the city’s emergency order to wear masks to limit the spread of COVID-19. Wes Wolfe/Georgia Recorder

SAVANNAH – Tourists from the Northeast, Midwest and all over Georgia descended on Tybee Island over the weekend, creating scenes in the beach community typical of spring break or the height of summer vacation season, with little evidence of concern about catching or spreading the new coronavirus.

People left wide swaths of sandy beach open while they packed in close together near the waterline and by the island pier, as social distancing appeared to be an afterthought and only a handful of people wore face coverings. The weekend crowds emerged from imposed hibernation to take in the sun-splashed days soon after Gov. Brian Kemp lifted most coronavirus-related stay-home restrictions earlier in the week. The order remains in effect for medically fragile people.

Friday afternoon, the governor and the state Department of Public Health’s commissioner issued a press release just ahead of the weekend urging people to wear masks, practice social distancing and follow other guidelines aimed at containing the spread of COVID-19. Apparently many of the visitors who descended on Georgia’s beaches and Savannah’s riverside dining and entertainment district didn’t get the memo.

Tybee Island Mayor Shirley Sessions said she expected about 8,000 vehicles carrying visitors to cross the bridge onto the island Saturday. She also said she’d seen media reports that Chatham County is one of several communities nationwide that health experts believe are primed for a spike soon in new coronavirus infections. As of Sunday, state health officials reported nine people had died of COVID-19 in Chatham County and 233 had contracted the disease caused by the new coronavirus since the global outbreak started. 

Tybee Island Mayor Shirley Sessions took a more cautious approach to opening up the local beach than the governor. She’s worried surrounding Chatham County is about to get more new coronavirus cases. Wes Wolfe/Georgia Recorder

“It looks like Chatham and Clarke County in Georgia are the two that are predicted to have spikes, and Chatham County has seven municipalities — Savannah and Tybee included…,” Sessions said. “I don’t know how they’ll make the determination on Tybee, because Tybee has so many visitors. People who come down here, they may get sick down here and then they take it to wherever they live — New York, Charleston, Bryan County, Darien. Who knows? So there’s no way of measuring.”

Even before Kemp issued his stay-home order April 2, Tybee Island and other local governments tried to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus in their communities with their own restrictions.

The Georgia Department of Public Health said confirmed cases of COVID-19 statewide climbed to 28,602 by Sunday afternoon and the disease had claimed 1,177 lives.

On River Street in Savannah over the weekend, most people kept their distance along the sidewalks, but people bunched together at the entrances of the few businesses that chose to open. At Wet Willie’s, for instance, staff in gloves and face coverings took the temperature of patrons before allowing them inside.

Workers also returned to suburban Savannah businesses more likely to attract locals. At an area Chili’s on Savannah’s south side, the staff all wore gloves and face coverings while hosts sat customers more than six feet apart. Given the choice to stay home, server Jameson Houser said she was ready to come back to work.

“We all, even some of our corporate people, agree that it was a little early, because science shows it’s still not technically safe, but they called us and said we were available to go back to work, and I was tired of sitting at home, so I came back to work,” Houser said.

She said dining room traffic was slow so far, but she expected business to pick up as people become less afraid of going out.

Kemp had said he wrestled with the competing priorities to keep Georgians safe while protecting businesses and workers from the continued financial hardships created by forcing people to stay home other than for needed trips to places like the grocery store and pharmacy. When he announced April 20 he would lift restrictions on close-contact businesses like hair stylists and gyms, he said he “didn’t give a damn about politics” but he was weighing the financial hardships against the public health benefits of his stay-home order. 

On the southern end of Georgia’s 110-mile coast, Glynn County Commissioner Peter Murphy said he’s optimistic about life on St. Simons Island in the coming weeks because he sees lots of compliance with guidelines issued by Atlanta’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and adopted by state health officials.

“I think that our citizens here on St. Simons are appropriately distancing and following other guidelines of hand washing and alcohol wipes,” Murphy said. “So, I think that, coupled with the fact that we’re in a stretch of 75-85 degree sunny weather and we’re in relatively wide-open spaces out here with restaurants and barbershops and beauty salons all appropriately following the governor’s guidelines, I think we’re going to be in good shape. 

“And, I would be shocked if we have a significant spike in cases, remembering that in two and a half to three months, we’ve still only had 58 cases in Glynn County.” (As of late Sunday, Glynn added another positive case to raise the count to 59)

However, some projections say Kemp’s lifting of most of his stay-home order last week will reverse some of the progress made to contain the spread of COVID-19 when many people avoided interacting with others both at work and after hours.

The easing of restrictions could cause more infections and thousands of additional deaths, according to a report released by the University of Georgia Odum School of Ecology. If people return to about 80 percent of their usual activity outside their home, the result could be 280,000 more cases and 20,000 more deaths, the report says. The best-case scenario is Georgians will stay home most of the time as they did in April for a reduction to about 30 percent of typical activity away from home, which could result in 24,500 new cases and 7,600 more deaths.

“Epidemics are not like hurricanes or other natural disasters that independently pass through a place,” John Drake, study lead author and director of the Center for the Ecology of Infectious Diseases, wrote in the report. “They respond to our actions, for better and for worse. The wide range of possible outcomes underscores that we are at a tipping point. Runaway growth in cases and deaths is a very real possibility.”

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Wes Wolfe
Wes Wolfe

Wes Wolfe is a reporter who's worked for newspapers across the South, winning press association awards for his work in Georgia and the Carolinas. He lives in Brunswick, where he recently wrapped up more than three years with The Brunswick News.