Kemp allies defend reopening Georgia beaches despite coastal criticism

Gov’s top aide: ‘Go to the beach, lake or a state park!’

Gov. Brian Kemp’s top aide urged Georgians to head to the state’s once-shuttered beaches. A statewide official lashed out at the Republican’s critics for playing “pandemic politics.” And a Savannah legislator questioned whether predictions of the rapid spread of the coronavirus were overblown.

Key allies of the governor defended the statewide shelter-in-place order that lifted local restrictions when it took effect Friday, a move that infuriated some coastal officials who had recently shut down the seashore to help limit the pandemic.

“Georgia – go to the beach, lake or a state park!” said Tim Fleming, the governor’s chief of staff, in a Facebook post late Saturday. “They are all open and despite what the media is reporting there have been no issues on Georgia beaches or lakes today.”

He added: “People have to be able to get out of the house to get fresh air and exercise. As long as they do not congregate and practice social distancing.”

The push by Fleming, who earlier criticized local leaders for "overreach," came as officials in two coastal communities accused the governor of usurping local control with a statewide rule that nullified city and county restrictions.

"Now is not the best time to have a good experience on Tybee," said Tybee Island Mayor Shirley Sessions, who initially threatened legal action to keep beaches in the seaside town outside of  Savannah closed. "Whether I like it or not, we're gonna respect it to the best of our ability."

‘Grossly off’

As critics blasted the governor's decision, Kemp's social media accounts were replete with aerial pictures of empty parking lots, sparse seashores and lightly-populated lakes. His administration tasked some Georgia State Patrol officers to reinforce local officials roaming the reopened beaches.

Tim Fleming's Facebook post.

icon to expand image

"They're patrolling around the clock and enforcing social distancing. Beach gear and parties are prohibited. We have the resources to ensure compliance with the order. Signs are up. Follow the rules," Kemp said in one tweet.

He was seconded by other Republican officials. Public Service Commissioner Tim Echols sent his supporters a lengthy newsletter assailing the "fake news media" and those he accused of trying to "score cheap political points" during the crisis.

"Now is not the time for pandemic politics," he wrote. "It's time for Georgians to unite together and support Governor Kemp and his team who are using data, science, and experts to chart a measured path forward."

Several of Kemp’s defenders pointed to the pressure-cooker of a crisis that forces public officials to balance public safety, economic vitality and personal health. State Rep. Terry Rogers said it’s easy to “sit at home and try to make decisions without all the facts.”

“But anyone who knows the governor and his team knows how hard they’re working,” said Rogers, a Clarkesville Republican who is one of Kemp’s top deputies in the Georgia House.

“Are there things they wish they could do differently? I’m sure. But he’s always had the best interest of the people of this state at heart. And with the situation constantly changing, he’s making the best decisions he can based on the most current information provided to him.”

Pressed over the weekend about the governor's stance on Georgia's beaches, state Rep. Ron Stephens, a Savannah Republican,  referred to a story from a conservative media outlet that argued that projections by federal epidemiologists about the spread of the coronavirus could be "wildly inaccurate."

“Some of us are questioning the models as grossly off,” Stephens said.

Wiggle room?

The beaches were reopened by a shelter-in-place order enacted by Kemp after mounting pressure from health experts and politicians who worried a patchwork of restrictions, some severe and some loose, would fail to effectively contain a disease that's killed hundreds of Georgians and sickened thousands.

Georgia State Patrol Capt. Thornell King watches visitors to Tybee Island beach on Saturday, April 4, 2020. (Photo: Stephen B. Morton/Special to the AJC)

Credit: Stephen B. Morton

icon to expand image

Credit: Stephen B. Morton

The rules overrode the hodgepodge of regulations that counties and cities put in place that offered uniformity some officials have craved. But they also blocked local governments from taking emergency action that "in any way conflicts, varies of differs" from the governor's order, the attorney general's office said.

The new orders didn’t fling open the beaches. The Georgia Department of Natural Resources is banning the use of chairs, umbrellas and tents on the beach, and officers will scour the seashore to enforce social distancing and break up crowds of more than 10, Kemp’s office said.

Still, some officials in coastal areas that have long been bastions of Republican support in Georgia worry that their shorelines could soon draw stir-crazy visitors from other parts of the state, or the country, eager for some seaspray and sunshine.

State Rep. Jeff Jones, R-Brunswick, wrote Kemp a letter Saturday calling his decision to reopen the beaches “counter-intuitive” to containing the disease and supporting local government control.

“I’m scratching my head after this decision,” said Jones. “Maybe the governor should have sought the opinion of local representatives.”

The Savannah Morning News reported that "many swimsuit-clad youths enjoyed Tybee's shore to the fullest on Saturday, even while Georgia State Patrol officers monitored the sand."

And Benji Bennett, who owns a beach rental firm, told the Brunswick News he had received dozens of emails from people who own vacation homes on St. Simons Island eager to return now that the beaches have reopened.

Some have urged Kemp to head off the controversy by giving state parks official and certain local authorities power to decide which properties should remain open and which should be restricted.

Others want him to echo Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who also issued statewide shelter-in-place rules that superseded local orders with stricter guidelines, but later clarified that some communities can still take more drastic  steps.

Kemp has given himself some wiggle room. He signed an executive order late Friday that noted he's likely to issue more guidance on his shelter-in-place orders through social media.

And his aides say he’s monitoring data from state and federal officials to inform his decisions, even as he warns beachgoers not to cross the line in the sand.

“Anyone who thinks they’re going to the beach to party is sorely mistaken,” said Kemp spokeswoman Candice Broce. “Law enforcement will shut it down – no exceptions. Safety is our top priority.”