BRUNSWICK — Vacationers heading to the Georgia coast this week, and the workers who want to serve them to earn a paycheck while the tourism economy regains its footing, are looking for a safe place to land this weekend.
Ahead of a big July 4th holiday, St. Simons Island’s restaurants and other attractions along the coast warned through social media posts that reopening plans are still in flux as they adjust to the fallout from the week’s record spikes in COVID-19 cases.
A temporary dining room closure here, an indefinite suspension of business there. It’s clear confirmation of state test data that the coronavirus disease is spreading faster these days along Georgia’s shoreline, taking a toll on the staff of the hospitality industry and posing a threat to Georgia’s summer tourist economy.
On the mainland, the Brunswick bar and restaurant Tipsy McSway’s draws a mix of locals and tourists, and owner Susan Bates worries that the coming holiday weekend will put her people through a new test. The staff continues to regroup from months without regular work and now they get grief from some customers over delays caused by safety precautions.
“There are so many visitors in our beautiful Golden Isles right now who are discovering that a lot of their favorite restaurants are temporarily closed,” Bates said Friday. “We’re seeing more tourists at my place than usual. The challenge is that we are sticking with social distancing guidelines to the extreme.”
Customers are aware that the wait for a table is likely to be a bit longer these days, but some are pushing greeters to move things along, adding to the stress of providing service during a pandemic.
“Most people are understanding of the longer than usual wait and the additional time it takes to disinfect everything between guests,” Bates said. “Some are impatient, that’s for sure. Our team members are doing their best but it is stressful. The local spike in COVID cases among service industry workers is a frightening reality. We are doing everything we can to stay safe and try to stay open. It’s not easy.”
Georgia set a single day record of confirmed coronavirus cases Sunday with 2,225 new infections. It was the sixth straight day with more than 1,000 confirmed new cases.
Gov. Brian Kemp cleared the way for businesses like Tipsy McSway’s to reopen in late April after ordering most workers to stay home weeks earlier. The state’s stay-home order to contain the sometimes deadly virus paused what was a strong Georgia economy.
Neighboring states that usually play host to big July 4th holiday beach crowds are also experiencing spikes in COVID-19 cases and are reversing some of the steps recently taken to try to slowly return to business as usual. Friday, Florida banned alcohol service in bars after determining young people weren’t staying safe while drinking cocktails. North Carolina’s governor announced Wednesday he will require people to wear face coverings in public for the next three weeks.
Kemp said at a state Capitol press conference Friday he does not plan to institute any new orders designed to slow the virus, but instead asked people to be careful and advised that staying safe in public means wearing a mask.
Several St. Simons Island businesses that temporarily shut down this month called in disinfecting teams and posted certificates of disinfection online.
The delicate balancing act between safety and restarting the hotel and restaurant business poses a similar dilemma on Jekyll Island, with some venues suddenly closing. The state-owned island’s attractions are struggling to be nimble to enforce shifting safety guidelines at peak summer vacation season.
“We are definitely seeing a shift in some energy following Memorial Day weekend, traditionally summer’s opening act,” Jekyll Island Authority Senior Marketing Director Kate Harris said at its board of directors’ June meeting. “As we mentioned, we have seen all of our hotels back open by the third week of May, and that was coinciding with a lot of pent-up demand.”
Harris said people are getting used to new safety requirements, with extra scrubbing and sanitizing.
The uneasy one step forward, two steps back dance to get back to business is distressing some of the biggest convention facilities on Georgia’s coast. The Westin Savannah Harbor resort across the river from the city’s entertainment district is among the big Georgia convention hotels that recently reported mass staff furloughs.
Savannah Mayor Van Johnson said he is preparing to call for an emergency order this week to require people to wear masks in public in response to an explosive recent spike of positive COVID-19 tests in Chatham County.
Johnson released a message Saturday that he is concerned about viral spread in Chatham County as younger people hit the restaurant and bar tourist district in Savannah and add to what’s already been heavy beach traffic carrying crowds to Tybee Island. He said one of his worries is that young people who are asymptomatic could become “super spreaders.”
“I get it. You’re tired of all this shelter in place stuff,” Johnson said. “You are the young and the restless.The bars and restaurants are open. You want to have fun with your friends. You want to live your best life. You’re young, and even if you get the virus, it may not be that bad.
“But, but, but, every time you are close to others without a mask, you are putting your parents, grandparents and neighbors at risk. You’re possibly spreading COVID-19 to people who are more likely to get sick.”
Georgia’s coastal communities got ahead of the state’s stay-home orders in April, shutting down beaches and businesses in patchwork fashion to discourage spring break crowds from gatherings that might spread the coronavirus. The governor’s emergency orders overrode stronger restrictions imposed by cities and counties.
In late May, Kemp lifted many restrictions on bars and entertainment venues and his overall emergency order is set to expire July 12.