Frat Beach festivities may be on the dry side this year as the Glynn County Commission looks at banning alcohol on East Beach during the annual revelry.
“We’re looking at what we can do to mitigate a disaster, if you will,” said Glynn County Commission Chairman Mike Browning.
It’s not set in stone, but county commissioners will consider banning alcohol on East Beach on Nov. 6 and 7 when they meet this week.
The weekend of the annual football game between the University of Georgia Bulldogs and the University of Florida Gators typically draws college students to the Golden Isles, specifically to St. Simons Island. The game is set for Nov. 7.
The COVID-19 global pandemic has brought about bans on large gatherings in Georgia and the rest of the nation.
There is a good reason for the policy. Glynn County, for example, reported significant spikes in new cases of COVID-19 and virus-related deaths following the Memorial Day and Independence Day holidays.
In an effort to discourage large gatherings, Glynn County, Jekyll Island and the city of Brunswick canceled their fireworks shows.
“My position is, I think we need to completely shut it down,” said Commission Vice-chairman Bill Brunson. “I’d shut the beaches down if I could, but that’s (Gov. Brian Kemp’s) call.”
Frat Beach draws crowds from all over the state, and if COVID-19 spreads among the throng it will go back with them to university campuses across the region, he said.
Brunson was not shy about his distaste for the event, adding that one of his first acts as a commissioner more than five years ago was to try to get the beach bash banned.
While his concerns then were more about the poor image he felt it gave the Golden Isles, Brunson now says he considers it a public health matter.
He could not say Monday how the ban would actually be enforced. It’s a common practice to bring mixed drinks to the beach gathering in non-standard containers, he noted, like gallon jugs. In those cases, a police officer may not be able to recognize it as alcohol by sight alone.
“It will be tough to enforce … but we’re going to do everything we can to mitigate that potential catastrophic event,” Brunson said.
Glynn County police will be on the beach, as well as Georgia State Patrol and Department of Natural Resources personnel. GCPD Chief Jay Wiggins said actions police could take to enforce the rule, should the commission enact the ban, are under discussion.
The county also intends to ask state government for assistance should the ban pass, Browning said.
Commissioner Peter Murphy, who represents St. Simons Island, said the county has considered other options already, from cracking down on public drunkenness and open container laws to simply closing the beach.
“We ended up being the poster child of poor behavior during the spring break when kids migrated to St. Simons,” Murphy said. “Looking at all of our options, I think it’s the strongest option to show to the community, the people of Glynn County, the state of Georgia, that we take this seriously and want to discourage this type of gathering during this unprecedented pandemic.”
Frat Beach poses an inverse problem to what Glynn County experienced during spring break, Murphy said. When other nearby beaches closed, commissioners believed sand-seekers would flock to St. Simons Island as the nearest alternative. The way he sees it, the shoe is now on the other foot as banning alcohol during Frat Beach festivities might cause revelers to change their venue to Jekyll Island or other beaches.
Murphy has a simple answer to that possibility.
“The way I feel, that’s not our problem,” Murphy said. “We can only deal with what we have under our control.”
A ban would impact local business during what is normally an exciting and long-standing tradition, but the tourism bureau supports the move, said Scott McQuade, president and CEO of the Golden Isles Convention and Visitors Bureau.
“The (Georgia-Florida) weekend historically has been one of the fall’s most busy and anticipated travel periods,” McQuade said.
The CVB and local businesses are very much aware this year hasn’t been business as usual, he said. Maintaining the balance between public health and economic health has not been easy.
Obviously service establishments want to welcome visitors, but not at the risk of causing another large COVID-19 outbreak, he said.
He suggested finding ways to make the annual event work within the bounds of the pandemic rather than trying to call it off.
“This also may be an opportunity to re-envision this event that encourages visitation but without the undesired behaviors and single mass gathering on the beach,” McQuade said. “With prudent messaging and enforcement I believe that a balance can be created similar to the one that we enjoyed for the most of the summer.”
Whether alcohol is banned on the beach over Georgia-Florida weekend or not, Browning said the county plans to scale back its safety, first-aid and lost and found services.
“If someone is in trouble, we’ll respond, but we’re not going to be out there with our county employees in the midst of it,” Brunson said.
Glynn County isn’t the only one changing how it will participate in the event, according to Glenn Gann, vice president and administrator of the Southeast Georgia Health System’s St. Marys hospital. In past years, the health system provided on-site treatment of simple injuries, intoxication, dehydration and transport to the hospital when necessary.
“This year the health system will utilize more space during the event to allow for social distancing,” Gann said. “All patients will be required to wear a mask unless it’s medically unsafe. We will also have an increased amount of hand sanitizer and masks available.”
Lea King-Badyna, executive director of Keep Golden Isles Beautiful, said trash pick up efforts won’t begin until after the festivities have concluded this year. The annual Saturday morning-after cleanup sweep is set to begin Nov. 7 at 7:30 a.m. at the old Coast Guard station parking area. All volunteers are welcome and gloves, trash bags and masks will be provided.
The commission will meet at 6 p.m. Thursday to discuss the temporary alcohol ban. The meeting will also be broadcast to the county’s Facebook and YouTube pages.