For the first time in recent memory, tourist-dependent Tybee Island, Ga., was trying its best to keep visitors away. The small barrier island shuttered its beaches March 20 out of fear out-of-town visitors could bring the novel coronavirus to a community with an aging population and no hospital and clog the single two-lane highway to the mainland. Other coastal Georgia communities followed, closing hotels and motels and banning short-term rentals.
Those precautions were scrapped abruptly on Thursday, when Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) enraged local leaders by reopening all the state’s beaches.
“As the Pentagon ordered 100,000 body bags to store the corpses of Americans killed by the Coronavirus, Governor Brian Kemp dictated that Georgia beaches must reopen, and declared any decision makers who refused to follow these orders would face prison and/or fines,” Tybee Island Mayor Shirley Sessions wrote in a furious denunciation on Saturday, referencing a request the Federal Emergency Management Agency made last week to the Defense Department. “The health of our residents, staff and visitors are being put at risk and we will pursue legal avenues to overturn his reckless mandate.”
Kemp’s stay-at-home order, which supersedes those issued on the city or county level, states that nonessential workers should stay home when not making necessary trips to medical appointments, pharmacies and grocery stores. Residents also are allowed to leave their homes to exercise, and the governor’s office has said officers from Georgia’s Department of Public Safety and Department of Natural Resources will patrol beaches to ensure compliance with social distancing guidelines.
The announcement appeared to catch local officials off guard, with Allen Booker, a Democratic county commissioner in Glynn County, Ga., calling it “stupid and crazy at the same time.”
In a Friday video filmed from her porch, Sessions, who holds a nonpartisan position and is a few months into her first term as mayor, said no one would be available to take down barricades and plywood signs announcing beach closures until after the weekend. She begged visitors to voluntarily stay away, despite the governor’s order.
“We are now in a position where we are pleading with the public and with our residents to adhere to the beach closing,” Sessions said, adding that the coastal city of nearly 3,000 people was in a “very precarious situation.”
Easily accessible from Savannah, Tybee Island has perhaps the most heavily visited — and smallest — beach in the state, Sessions said. While the city’s small police force typically has 25 officers, one has tested positive for covid-19 and five others are self-quarantined because of potential exposure. Since the city is unable to monitor its own beaches, Sessions asked residents to send in videos and photos of people gathering too close together.
“We don’t have lifeguards on our beaches yet, and if people decide to go into the ocean and there’s an accident, something really tragic, Tybee is going to be in a very bad position,” she told WTOC.
While Kemp hasn’t directly responded to Sessions’s criticism, he posted aerial footage on Twitter showing “no issues” and “very few visitors” on Tybee Island over the weekend. His office told WSB-TV Kemp decided to reopen beaches after gathering input from public health and emergency management officials.
Other elected officials have been quick to criticize Kemp, who raised eyebrows last Wednesday when he said he had just learned the coronavirus could be spread by people who aren’t displaying symptoms. One Republican state representative, Jeff Jones, told the Brunswick News the governor had not only potentially put people at risk but also gone against the principle of local government control.
“We are in the middle of a worldwide pandemic, and while we are closing schools we are reopening beaches,” Savannah Mayor Van Johnson (D) told “NBC Nightly News” on Sunday. “In my mind, that does not compute.”
Glynn County, home to the resort communities of Jekyll Island and St. Simons Island, had ordered hotels, bed-and-breakfasts and short-term rentals to close before Kemp’s announcement. In an interview with the Florida Times-Union, Glynn County Commissioner Peter Murphy (R) said the governor “undid all the good we did in March” with his order.
“I’ve talked to some short-term rental operators, and they said they’re being flooded with calls from New York and other hot spots, and we have no way to force them to quarantine,” Glynn County Commission Chairman Michael Browning (R) told the paper. “They’re going to be out and about in the community.”
Murphy also told the Times-Union Kemp’s order came days after the commission ordered beaches on privately owned Sea Island to close. The timing was “interesting,” he said, because the island’s billionaire owner, Philip Anschutz, is a major Republican donor. Sen. David Perdue (R), a prominent Kemp ally, also has a home there. A spokesman for Kemp told the paper there was no connection.
The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Georgia spiked Sunday night, with 359 new cases and 11 new deaths reported in 24 hours. The state now has a total of 6,742 confirmed cases, and 219 deaths have been attributed to the virus, according to the Georgia Department of Public Health.
Kemp’s order to reopen the beaches gave “exercise” as its primary rationale and stipulated that people should remain six feet apart, not sit in chairs and not hold “parties.”
To ensure people are heading to the beach only for exercise, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources banned beach chairs, umbrellas and tents. On Saturday, state police on Tybee Island “occasionally made the rounds to eject beachgoers who were obviously defying Kemp’s order, with several of them sitting on beach chairs drinking beer,” the Savannah Morning News reported. “Other youths played games or went swimming, while quite a few sunbathers stretched any reasonable definition of 'exercise’ to the point of incredulity.”
Locals, meanwhile, weren’t thrilled to see visitors returning to their island in the midst of a global pandemic.
“In my opinion, they just loaded a gun and pointed it at the beach,” Keith Gay, who owns a vacation rental company in Tybee Island, told WSAV. “I hope I’m wrong, but when they put the stay-in-place rule, the weekend following that, we had 9,000 cars on the island. Every restaurant, every bar and beach were completely slammed. This is after there had been a national warning and a state warning about social distancing.”
One woman wore a hazmat suit as a protest, telling the station that Kemp had put her disabled veteran husband at risk. “We are doing what we’re supposed to be doing, and when do visitors’ rights supersede the residents’ rights?” she asked.