A state legislator is scratching his head, a Glynn official is frustrated and the mayor of Tybee Island is threatening legal action.
They are among a growing chorus of officials and residents howling over Gov. Brian Kemp’s decision Friday to reopen Georgia’s beaches.
Local officials fear allowing beach access and lifting the temporary ban on short term rentals, another give-back announced by the governor, will only encourage visits to Georgia’s sandy shores. It’s an unwise move amid a COVID-19 pandemic that is claiming lives, officials stress.
Kemp’s order reopens the beaches on St. Simons, Tybee and Jekyll islands, as well as Sea Island. People are allowed to walk the beaches under certain restrictions, including staying six feet apart unless members of the same family.
State Rep. Jeff Jones, R-St. Simons Island, wishes the governor had left well enough alone.
“I believe opening Georgia beaches and lifting rules on short term rentals is counterintuitive to mitigating virus spread and supporting local government control,” Jones said.
“The governor should have left it alone. It was done.”
Glynn County closed the beaches to all access March 21. Jekyll Island followed suit, closing its beaches too. Tybee’s beaches were already closed at the time, and the Sea Island beach was closed by the Glynn County Commission only recently.
“Scratching my head after this decision,” Jones said. “Maybe the governor should have sought the opinion of local reps.”
The beach reopenings come at a time when the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Georgia’s coastal counties continues to grow, with the Savannah-Chatham County area reporting the highest number — 83 as of noon Sunday. Casualties includes three deaths in the Savannah area, a disheartening fact not lost on officials up and down the coast.
Another death due to the coronavirus was reported in Bryan County, where 16 cases had been confirmed as of noon Sunday.
Health officials put Glynn County’s numbers at 29, Camden’s at 9 and McIntosh at two.
Coastal communities and their governing authorities may have already received a hint of how beach reopenings and removal of the rental ban will be perceived around the country. At least one business owner on St. Simons Island told The News Saturday that he was receiving inquiries from residents of New York, one of the states hardest hit by the coronavirus, about property and rentals on the island.
The potential spread of the virus from places like New York City is Glynn County Commission Chair Mike Browning’s worst fear.
Browning is upset that the governor brushed aside the two major aspects of the county’s defensive strategy.
“We were made aware that a good number of people that live in New York, Connecticut, New Jersey and other virus hot spots were calling here about short term rentals,” Browning said. “They wanted to get away from those hotspots and come here. The fear among many of our citizens is they could be carriers of the virus and bring it to Glynn and infect our population. Same with the beaches. Spring breakers but also crowds in general on the beach were a concern.
“We closed the beaches and short term rentals and we felt strongly those actions would be of great benefit to the community at this time. It’s worth noting the governor wanted the beaches closed, too.”
Browning said the commission is disappointed.
“Are we frustrated by his decision?” he said. “Yes. The board of commissioners has been told from day one we had to make the tough decisions for our county and that is what every county in Georgia was told. Now, to have our decisions voided by the state is disappointing and frustrating. Our people are angry. What do we tell them?”
Tybee Mayor Shirley Sessions knows what to tell them: no parking. She says as much in a letter posted on the city of Tybee Island’s website.
“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. While the beaches have to reopen under the governor’s order, Tybee will not have beach access, and parking lots will remain closed until further notice.
“Additionally in spite of the serious health situation facing our community and the world, Governor Kemp has rescinded all restrictions put in place by local municipalities since March 1st.”
Kemp may not have heard the last from Tybee Island, the mayor warns.
“Tybee City Council and I are devastated by the sudden directives and do not support his decisions,” she said. “The health of our residents, staff and visitors are being put at risk and we will pursue legal avenues to overturn his reckless mandate.”