Memorial Day and the weekend preceding it is not known as a quiet time in Golden Isles.
“It marks the unofficial start of summer and is typically a very busy time for area beaches, parks, and pools,” said Lawton Davis, director of the Coastal Health District. “It’s also a popular occasion for gathering with family and friends for a backyard barbecue.”
As of 7 p.m. Thursday, 40,663 people had been diagnosed with COVID-19 statewide since the outbreak began, according to the Georgia Department of Public Health, resulting in 1,75 deaths.
In the eight-county Coastal Health District, Glynn County has reported a total of 83 cases, Camden 53, McIntosh 11, Chatham 406, Bryan 67, Effingham 50, Liberty 60 and Long 12.
In Glynn and Camden counties, that comes out to be an increase of eight cases in the last seven days and two in McIntosh. No new deaths were reported in the three counties in that time frame.
Judging by the size of the crowds gathering in the area recently, one might be forgiven for not realizing the country is still combating a global pandemic.
“Although beaches and pools have been allowed to reopen, this does not mean we can ignore the threat of COVID-19, which is still very much with us,” Davis said.
While the Centers for Disease Control has found no evidence the disease can be spread between people in pools, hot tubs or spas with properly treated water, social distancing measures are essential to staying well.
“There is definitely a risk of infection when people congregate at a pool or beach,” Davis said. “For this reason, it’s still important to maintain at least six feet of distance between yourself and people outside your household.”
Sharing food and beach equipment is also a no-go, he said, and beachgoers should continue practicing good hand hygiene and covering their coughs and sneezes even at the seashore.
Health officials are concerned about the spread of COVID-19 between age groups in public areas like the beach.
“We remain concerned about ‘inter-generational’ gatherings. For example, having grandparents and grandkids coming together for a family reunion,” Davis said. “While the virus can cause serious illness for people of any age, many children don’t show symptoms when infected with COVID-19.
“If a child is infected but asymptomatic and visits with a vulnerable adult in the family, the resulting illness could be devastating.”
As other counties in the state have seen, COVID-19 hotspots can spring up practically anywhere.
“As evidenced by the number of confirmed cases related to church and large group gatherings, the possibility of coronavirus infecting multiple people — and thereby creating a ‘hotspot’ — exists anywhere that large groups of people are gathered and not practicing social distancing or wearing masks, including beaches, restaurants or parks,” said Michael D. Scherneck, president and CEO of the Southeast Georgia Health System.
While law enforcement personnel will be out and about enforcing social distancing and the gathering ban, Scherneck said it is essential visitors and residents work to protect themselves by following CDC and state Department of Public Health guidelines.
“We encourage our community to be proactive and practice Southern hospitality by carrying an extra mask or two to offer to others who do not have a mask,” Scherneck said.
During a Thursday night press conference, Col. Gary Vowel, commissioner of the state Department of Public Safety, said the Georgia State Patrol will be out in force over the long weekend.
Georgia beaches will be “saturated” with troopers to enforce a social distancing mandate and ban on gatherings of more than 10 issued May 12 by Gov. Brian Kemp, Vowel said.
He called on citizens and business owners to voluntarily follow the order.
“We’ll be looking out for large gatherings and making sure restaurant owners are following the orders,” Vowel said. “While it is our mandate to enforce the order, it should not be necessary.”
The order doesn’t just apply to the beaches, Mark Williams, commissioner of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, said during the same press conference.
“It’s very important that those taking advantage of the state’s natural resources follow all safety guidelines, including social distancing,” Williams said.
He asked citizens to report violations of either social distancing or the gathering ban to the DNR’s ranger hotline at 1-800-241-4113.
State pools and splash pads will remain closed, he said. State park personnel can and will limit the number of people going into a park in situations where it is not possible for visitors to distance themselves from others.
While COVID-19 may be in overall decline across the state, enough new cases are still being diagnosed in the eight-county Coastal Health District that residents and visitors should stay on their toes.
That’s especially true during Memorial Day weekend, which will be as busy as ever by all accounts.
“We continue to identify new cases throughout our district,” Davis said. “Additionally, when people travel, they can bring new cases to an area or bring the infection back home. Anytime people begin gathering together, we run the risk of seeing a spike in cases.”