Cases of coronavirus disease surging along Georgia’s coast

People enjoyed East Beach on St. Simons Island Tuesday, July 14, 2020. RYON HORNE / RHORNE@AJC.COM

Credit: RYON HORNE

Credit: RYON HORNE

Officials cite crowded beaches, out-of-towners in Glynn County

Glynn County — home to popular beach getaways that attract tourists from across the nation — has become a hot spot for the coronavirus disease, according to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis of state health data.

Over the last two weeks, 834 new cases of the highly contagious disease have been reported in the Coastal Georgia community, bringing its total to 1,622 as of Tuesday. Ten people, all but one 68 or older, have died from the disease there.

Home to about 85,000 people, Glynn now ranks second among Georgia's 159 counties for its growth in the number of COVID-19 cases over the last 14 days per 100,000 residents. Meanwhile, the Brunswick metro area is experiencing the sixth worst outbreak in the nation, based on its numbers of newly reported cases over the same time frame, according to a New York Times report.

The problems started on Memorial Day weekend when many people flocked to the beaches on St. Simons Island, causing major traffic problems and prompting complaints from homeowners about motorists parking on their yards, said Glynn Commissioner J. Peter Murphy. A retired physician who represents the area, Murphy said he had never seen so many out-of-state license plates on the island.

“When we hit the height of beach season and got close to schools being closed, things just exploded,” said Murphy, who pushed hard in the early days of the pandemic to close the beaches.

People have steadily returned to the beaches since Gov. Brian Kemp’s statewide order in April lifted local restrictions that shuttered the seashore. A day after Kemp’s order took effect, his chief of staff, Tim Fleming, posted on Facebook, urging Georgians to head to the state’s beaches, lakes and state parks.

The crowds returned to Glynn’s beaches over the Independence Day weekend, when Florida’s popular beaches were shut down because of the pandemic, said Dr. Lawton Davis, health director of the Georgia Department of Public Health’s Coastal Health District.

“We just had the July 4 weekend and I understand the beaches were crowded and people had parties,” Davis said. “People sent me pictures of the beaches and things. It appeared people were not practicing strict social distancing and were not the most compliant with the recommendation that everyone should wear a face mask.”

The most popular beach on St. Simons, East Beach, remained busy last weekend and Monday. At low tide, the beach is broad and long, so it is easy for visitors to keep their distance from each other. Even so, young people clustered in the water and dense crowds gathered close together near the packed main parking lot.

The disease could have also spread amid the many protests for racial justice that have popped up across the Brunswick area since the Feb. 23 killing of Ahmaud Arbery, said Davis. Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man, was gunned down after three white men pursued him through a neighborhood just outside the city.

Glynn Commissioner Allen Booker, who represents most of the city, pushed back against the idea that the protests helped fuel the county’s outbreak.

“When we were having the major protests, we had the hospital out there giving out sanitizer and also masks, so it wasn’t a major issue,” he said. “We didn’t have a spike after that.”

City officials also distributed masks and hand sanitizer to the protesters, said Brunswick Mayor Cornell Harvey. The mayor confirmed he is considering joining Atlanta, Savannah and other municipalities in instituting a mask requirement for his city of 16,000 people.

“That is something that we will probably discuss,” he said, adding masks are already required in city government buildings.

Registered nurses Jesslyn Lewis, left, and Sasha Stewart, right, conduct COVID-19 tests outside the Glynn County Health Department in Brunswick on Tuesday, July 14, 2020. RYON HORNE / RHORNE@AJC.COM

Murphy, the Glynn commissioner, has heard from residents who are angry the county is not requiring masks or imposing other safety measures on the beaches.

“It’s out of our hands right now,” Murphy said. “Even if we voted 7-0 to require masks, the governor would say that’s unenforceable and only advisory.”

Kemp has called a statewide mask requirement a “bridge too far” and pursued a softer approach, including a recent “Wear A Mask” tour that touched down in seven Georgia cities over two days. The governor has frequently warned that college football season could be imperiled if his calls are ignored.

Stewart County in Southwest Georgia ranks first among the state's counties for its growth in the number of COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents over the last two weeks. With a population of about 6,200, Stewart had 225 cases as of Tuesday. Of those, 109 are detainees who tested positive for the disease at the federal immigration detention center located just outside of Lumpkin, the county seat. Three people have died from the disease in Stewart, including a Guatemalan detainee who was held at Stewart Detention Center.

On the other side of the state, dozens of people have been sickened by the disease in personal care and nursing homes across Glynn County. Of those, 32 residents and 13 employees at GraceMore Nursing & Rehab in Brunswick tested positive for COVID-19. Five residents there have died from the disease. GraceMore officials, who believe the disease spread through asymptomatic employees, are wearing masks, limiting visitors and providing free COVID-19 testing for employees.

“We stay in close contact with federal, state and local officials to ensure we’re doing everything possible to contain and prevent the spread of the virus,” Pam Popwell, the nursing home’s administrator, said in an email.

Catherine Spellman, LPN, secures COVID-19 tests conducted July 14, 2020, outside the Glynn County Health Department in Brunswick. Ryon Horne/RHORNE@AJC.COM

Credit: rhorne@ajc.com

Credit: rhorne@ajc.com

At the Glynn County Detention Center in Brunswick, one detainee tested positive for the disease before arriving there and was released shortly after being booked. One employee has tested positive in the Sheriff’s Office, which is screening new detainees and checking the temperatures of its staff daily.

Hospitalizations for COVID-19 at the Southeast Georgia Health System’s Brunswick campus hit this summer’s peak at 52 on Tuesday, up from eight on June 20. So far, the hospital has been able to care for patients with other illnesses and injuries and schedule elective procedures. A new floor is set to open there this month with 32 inpatient beds.

Masks are prevalent in the grocery stores on St. Simons. In contrast, the island’s Pier Village district is “regularly packed with people, only a small fraction of whom are wearing masks,” said Montgomery Hughes, a recent Brunswick High School graduate. He called Glynn’s spike in COVID-19 cases “extremely concerning, especially for the older segments of our population.”

“In my experience,” he said, “many see mask-wearing as an infringement on their civil liberties, instead of viewing their lack of mask-wearing as a danger to those who absolutely must go out for things like grocery shopping and medical appointments.”

The county's biggest share of positive COVID-19 cases — 593 — has been traced to the Brunswick area zip code of 31520, according to state Public Health Department data as of Tuesday.

7/14/20 - Brunswick - Catherine Spellman, LPN, secures COVID-19 tests conducted outside the Glynn County Health Department in Brunswick. Glynn County, home to Georgia’s popular beach getaways of St. Simons islands, has become a major hotspot for the coronavirus disease, according to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis of state health data. Ryon Horne/RHORNE@AJC.COM

Credit: rhorne@ajc.com

Credit: rhorne@ajc.com

Life in and around the county seat of Brunswick doesn’t appear to have slowed much. The Brunswick area Sam’s Club was bustling Tuesday. Nearly everyone seen leaving the store around 11 a.m. wore a mask. In the parking lot, Vickie Clark, 79, pushed her buggy, proudly wearing a blue mask.

“This,” she said, pointing to it, “is the answer.”

Clark figures July 4 celebrations contributed to the county’s spike in cases.

“We’re a party place,” she said, dancing a bit, even though the latest numbers don’t have her wanting to dance at all. “I’m not in the party scene.”

She recalled going to church recently for the first time since the pandemic took hold and realizing only a few people came with masks. Several parishioners contracted COVID-19. Clark prayed her mask worked.

“I’m scared for myself,” she said.

AJC staff writer Greg Bluestein contributed to this report.