Georgia couple fined $2,800 for hitting the beach during statewide lockdown

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. (Report byGreg Bluestein, Video by Ryon Horne)

A Georgia couple was hit with a $2,800 fine for going to the beach on Tybee Island this week in violation of statewide shelter-in-place orders that Gov. Brian Kemp appears poised to let expire Thursday night.

Georgia State Troopers have been patrolling the small oceanfront town outside Savannah, stationing themselves at access points where many beachgoers have been seen hopping over closures and hitting the sand despite the lockdown, WSAV News 3 reported.

On Wednesday, police reportedly caught Katie West and her husband walking through one of the crossovers to the beach and issued them two $1,400 citations for disorderly conduct.

The Richmond Hill couple told WSAV they were desperate to get out of the house for exercise after being holed up for weeks due to the coronavirus pandemic. West said she and her husband saw nothing indicating the beach was closed, leading them to believe they could proceed with their plans.

“There were no signs at all leading anyone toward any entrance, and there were no signs at the correct entrance,” West told the station.

West said they were among a few who were singled out, and that police did not issue citations to many others who were arriving at the same time.

“It was really hard to tell it was even an entrance. You had to go around a board that said do not use the crosswalk and it was just a small entrance that they had people crammed going in and out of so it made no sense,” West said, according to WSAV.

WSAV showed footage of scattered groups about the beach.

In some cases people have torn down closure signs and barricades at the beach’s five vehicle access points, leading to complaints from residents, Tybee Island City Manager Shawn Gillen told the station.

The monthlong lockdown order is set to expire just before midnight Thursday in spite of warnings from health officials that it may still be too early to do so.

Officials reportedly will open some of the beach access points this weekend.

Kemp’s order prohibited Georgians from going out except for “essential” or “necessary” purposes. It allowed most employers to engage only in “minimum business operations,” and it closed gyms, bowling alleys and “close-contact” establishments such as tattoo parlors, hair and nail salons, and barbershops. The order also suspended dine-in service at restaurants. Kemp allowed those close-contact businesses to reopen last week and authorized restaurants to open their dining rooms Monday. Bars and nightclubs remain shuttered.

Kemp’s executive orders have prohibited local governments from adopting their own regulations. That prohibition has been controversial among local government officials, particularly after Kemp reversed decisions to close Georgia beaches.

Tybee Island Mayor Shirley Sessions said she expects a surge of beach visitors this weekend if Kemp lifts the shelter-at-home order. “I still disagree” with Kemp’s preempting local regulations, Sessions said in an interview. “But I accept what we’re faced with. And, rather than fighting it, I’m trying to see how we can make it work for our community without being belligerent or argumentative to the governor.”

“Officers were giving a lot of warnings, no tickets, no citations, and we were getting calls from residents who were just very upset about the lack of enforcement,” Sessions said, according to WSAV-TV.

She told WSAV that she agrees with the citations and said the Wests could fight the charges in court if they wanted to.

“Explain your situation and it will be up to the judge to make a decision,” she said.

— Alan Judd and Greg Bluestein contributed to this report for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.