For the first time in recent memory, tourist-dependent Tybee Island, Georgia was trying its best to keep visitors away. The small barrier island shuttered its beaches on March 20 out of fear that 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 suit, closing hotels and motels and banning short-term rentals.
But those precautions were abruptly scrapped on Thursday, when Georgia Republican Gov. Brian Kemp 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, Gov. 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 that the Federal Emergency Management Agency made last week to the Department of Defense. “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 shelter-in-place order, which supersedes those issued on the city or county level, states that nonessential workers should stay at home when not making necessary trips to medical appointments, pharmacies and grocery stores. Residents are also allowed to leave their homes to exercise, and the governor’s office has said that officers from Georgia’s Department of Public Safety and Department of Natural Resources will be patrolling 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, Georgia, 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 only a few months into her first term as mayor, claimed that 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 beach in the state, and also the smallest, Sessions said. And while the city’s small police force typically has 25 officers, one has tested positive for COVID-19 and five others are self-quarantined due to potential exposure. Saying that the city lacked the resources to monitor its own beaches, Sessions asked residents to send in videos and photos of people gathering too close together.
“We don’t have life guards 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’ criticism, he posted aerial footage on Twitter showing that there were “no issues” and “very few visitors” on Tybee Island over the weekend. His office told WSB-TV that he made the decision to reopen beaches after gathering input from public health and emergency management officials.
Still, other elected officials have been quick to criticize Kemp, who raised eyebrows last Wednesday when he said he had just learned that coronavirus could be spread by people who aren’t displaying any symptoms. One Republican state representative told the Brunswick News that 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 Democratic Mayor Van Johnson told ‘NBC Nightly News’ on Sunday. “In my mind that does not compute.”
Glynn County, Georgia, which is home to the resort communities of Jekyll Island and St. Simon’s 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 Republican Commissioner Peter Murphy said that 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 Republican commission chairman Michael Browning told the paper. “They’re going to be out and about in the community.”
Murphy also told the Times-Union that Kemp’s order came just 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-Ga., a prominent Kemp ally, also has a home there. A spokesman for Kemp told the paper that there was no connection.
The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Georgia spiked on 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. 219 deaths have been attributed to the virus, according to the Georgia Department of Public Health.
To ensure that people are only heading to the beach for exercise, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources has 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 visitor’s rights supersede the resident’s rights?” she asked.