An executive order issued last week by Gov. Brian Kemp suspended local government powers, and it’s created friction between the state and the county.
Some Glynn County commissioners take issue with the governor’s decision to reopen the beaches and allow short stay rentals, a reversal of local orders.
County commission chairman Mike Browning took a strong stance against the decision on Monday and called Kemp’s leadership into question.
In a Tuesday interview with The News, Kemp said that particular part of the executive order was bound to be unpopular but was grounded in data and advice from health professionals.
“You’ve got 159 counties in Georgia that are dealing with it different, so we came up with an order based on the data we were seeing and on the advice of our public health officials,” Kemp said. “In some cases, it made things more stringent, and in some cases, it may have loosened them up a little bit.
“That’s just what you do when you do a statewide order.”
The feedback on the decision has been both good and bad, he said. The mandate that public areas can only be used for exercise and the state Department of Natural Resources’ ban on coolers, chairs, umbrellas and tents on the beach have been effective, from his perspective.
He did not rule out closing parks and beaches in the future if they prove to be a hindrance to slowing the spread of COVID-19.
“We didn’t just open the beaches back up for a free-for-all, like the Friday before Georgia-Florida weekend. We opened them back up for exercise only ... It’s not your normal beach activity,” Kemp said. “When you’re closing down fitness centers and other things, you limit the ability for people to get out and get some exercise.”
That, in particular, was an important subject in his consultations with Dr. Kathleen Toomey, Department of Public Health commissioner, he said. Getting out and exercising is a good way to ward against the virus and sickness in general.
“I don’t see any reason to close (the beaches) right now,” Kemp said.
He sits in on conference calls to discuss activity on the beaches and state parks every night, Kemp said, and so far has heard of no issues with people flaunting social distancing requirements.
“I’ve heard some people say some things, but from the officers we’ve had on the ground we have not seen anything in the updates,” Kemp said. “It’s very clearly light usage … Quite honestly, we had a very quiet weekend on all our coasts and beaches this weekend as well as our state parks throughout the state.”
He wasn’t so sure about the commission’s concerns that people will travel to the Golden Isles from hotspots like New York, saying many have been here since before any emergency orders went into effect.
“It could happen. I don’t think most people are traveling these days. There’s hardly any flights,” Kemp said. “But I’ve heard those concerns, and we continue to do a lot of due diligence. We’re digging into that with our team up here.”
All the measures taken so far are designed to keep people safe, the same as the local ordinances were, he said.
“None of us have never been through something like this and we’re making the best decision we can on the day we make them with the data we have and the conversations we’re having with health officials,” Kemp said.
As for whether or not the shelter-in-place order is, in fact, helping the situation, he said it’s too early to make a call.
“Normally the data’s moving two weeks behind anything you’re doing,” Kemp said.
The earlier shelter-in-place order for the medically fragile, which also closed bars and nightclubs and called for the public to keep a six-foot distance from others, has shown to have some effect, he said. He hopes the April 3 order will follow.
“We’re starting to see that in our data now,” Kemp said. “We’ve got to continue to watch that. The more we test, we know we’re going to get more positives … The mitigation stage is over with. We’re not going to be able to stop this virus. It’s here, it’s communicable and spreading now.”
He understands the concerns but said the situations calls for decisions that may be unpopular.
“I’ve been a local-control governor,” Kemp said. “I would tell them that a lot of their colleagues around the state were telling me that they wanted to put an order in place. When you’re making these kinds of decisions in these kinds of unprecedented times, you’re going to have some that like them and some that don’t. Again, I’m following the data and the advice from health officials.”
State Rep. Jeff Jones, R-St. Simons Island, shared many of the concerns with the county commission on Monday while state Sen. William Ligon, R-White Oak, felt keeping the beaches open was for the better.
While he didn’t have any comment on Browning’s letter, Ligon did take issue with attacks on Kemp’s ability to lead the state through the ongoing health crisis.
“I think the governor is working hard on this and provided leadership for the state of Georgia,” Ligon said. “They’re working hard to strike a balance.”
State Rep. Don Hogan, R-St. Simons Island, didn’t have much to say about the letter either, but he didn’t blame Browning for writing it.
“I think the county commissioner was right to write a letter, and I was disappointed the governor didn’t reach out to them,” Hogan said. “(It) seems like there needs to be more communication.”
Julie Jordan, Glynn County Democratic Party chairwoman, said the party supported closing the beaches and released a statement through her campaign about the matter.
“I support the (county commission’s) efforts to inform the governor of our displeasure with the opening of the beaches after our local elected officials had made the decision to close (them) and suspend short term rentals to support sheltering in place,” said Jordan.
On the Republican side, Glynn County GOP Chairwoman Ginny Hall was reluctant to weigh in.
“It’s hard to put thoughts into words because this is such a complex, comprehensive topic,” Hall said. “No decisions are easy.”
Residents are reminded to wash their hands regularly with soap and water, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer if necessary, avoid touching the face, clean frequently touched surfaces, cover coughs and sneezes, immediately throw away used tissues and stay home if feeling sick.
In other coronavirus news:
• All but one of the counties in the eight-county Coastal Health District reported an increase in the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19, and Brantley County confirmed its first cases — three in all, including one death. The number of cases in the coastal district swelled by nine for a total of 230. The number of deaths attributed to the coronavirus in the district remained at seven. Totals released by the Georgia Department of Public Health at 7 p.m. Tuesday are as follows: Glynn, 30; McIntosh, three; Camden, 17; Liberty, 13; Chatham, 120; Long, one; Effingham, 18; and Bryan, 26.
• In counties closest to Glynn, Brantley reported three cases, one of which resulted in the death of a 79-year-old woman who had an underlying condition, according to the health department.
Ware County reported 37 cases, and Charlton and Wayne counties, three each.
Georgia’s confirmed cases in all 159 counties totaled 9,158, including 1,899 hospitalizations and 348 deaths.
The results are from 33,785 tests statewide.