Elected leaders in two coastal Georgia communities on Saturday blasted Gov. Brian Kemp’s statewide shelter-in-place order, which allows beaches to reopen with social distancing, saying the mandate undermines local efforts to contain the coronavirus.

As the state's death toll from coronavirus increased to 208, Tybee Island Mayor Shirley Sessions and two Glynn County commissioners said Kemp's order increases the chances groups will congregate there and raise the risk of infections. Sessions went as far as to threaten legal action.

Local officials previously closed beaches on Tybee and St. Simons islands, while the state-owned Jekyll Island also closed its beaches. Kemp's order, which took effect Friday, nullified local ordinances that did not match the statewide shelter-in-place order, doing away with many local actions such as beach closures.

The governor’s executive order, however, bans groups of more than 10 and requires people keep 6 feet apart unless they are from the same household. Chairs, umbrellas and tents also are prohibited on beaches through 11:59 p.m. on April 13.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Greg Bluestein unpacks the new stay-at-home order set in place by Governor Brian Kemp. (Video by Ryon Horne, Photos by AJC Staff)

Sessions said in an interview that even if beachgoers stay in small groups, the virus could still spread as those people visit stores on Tybee, touch parking meters and walk along paths and boardwalks. “Now is not the best time to have a good experience on Tybee,” she said.

But the governor’s office and state and local authorities said crowds at the beaches on Tybee and St. Simons islands were light, particularly given Saturday’s warm weather.

“We’re not having any problems,” Glynn County Sheriff Neal Jump said of St. Simons. “I’m over here now and the people are keeping their distance. There are no large crowds. They’re walking and running and they’re doing everything that the order has applied.”

Kemp spokeswoman Candice Broce said she contacted Sessions “and explained how we stand ready to provide resources to ensure compliance with the order.”

“Throughout this process, Gov. Kemp has been guided by the recommendations of (state Commissioner of Public Health) Dr. Kathleen Toomey, public health officials in the private and public sectors, and emergency management officials to ensure the health and well-being of Georgians across our state,” Broce said in an email. “We continue to monitor the situation and deploy resources as needed.”

A member of the Tybee Island Life Guards patrols the beach on a ATV while visitors sunbathe in the sand on Saturday, April 4, 2020. (Photo: Stephen B. Morton/Special to the AJC)
A member of the Tybee Island Life Guards patrols the beach on a ATV while visitors sunbathe in the sand on Saturday, April 4, 2020. (Photo: Stephen B. Morton/Special to the AJC)

Credit: Stephen B. Morton

Credit: Stephen B. Morton

Sessions said Tybee has no hosptials and she worries about the island’s two nursing homes. She said beachgoers could clog U.S. 80, the island’s lone highway to the mainland.

The local police department, with 25 sworn officers, is also short-staffed after one officer is out awaiting test results for the virus and five others self-quarantined after possibly being exposed.

Early Saturday, Sessions accused Kemp in a statement of putting at risk the lives of residents, visitors and city staff. In an interview, Sessions thanked Kemp for sending the state patrol and DNR officers to help monitor the beach.

“Whether I like it or not, we’re gonna respect it to the best of our ability,” she said of the governor’s order.

On Saturday, the state Department of Public Health reported confirmed cases of the coronavirus had climbed by 416 since Friday to 6,383.

The clash over beaches is the latest friction between the governor’s office and some local leaders over restrictions to movement and commerce intended to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus.

In March, Kemp ordered schools closed and shut down bars and nightclubs, but he didn’t go as far as many cities wanted to enact a statewide shelter-in-place mandate. The governor endorsed efforts by cities and counties to enact their own restrictions — and many did.

Then last weekend, Kemp’s chief of staff, Tim Fleming, blasted unidentified local governments for “overreacting” and putting businesses at risk of failure. Many local leaders said Fleming’s comments on Facebook blindsided them after they felt Kemp had punted issues of public health to them.

On Wednesday, Kemp reversed course and announced his statewide order citing what he said was new information about the spread of the disease.

‘Shelter light’ 

Fearing an onslaught of spring break visitors, Glynn County officials closed the St. Simons beaches on March 20. They also banned certain short-term rentals.

Glynn Commissioner Peter Murphy, a Republican and retired physician who represents St. Simons Island, led the local beach closure effort. He expressed anger that the governor’s order had erased county actions to curtail the virus’ spread.

“We had carefully considered ways to keep people safe here and the governor’s order has undermined everything we were doing,” he said. “I call this ‘shelter light.’”

Early Saturday morning, a reporter with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution walked St. Simons main beaches and they looked as they did in pre-coronavirus days. People were walking dogs, jogging and just strolling. Barricades the county erected last month to close beach parking lots were set aside, and Georgia State Patrol cruisers patrolled beachside neighborhoods.

On Friday, Kemp granted sheriff’s departments the authority to enforce his executive order. Jump said he deployed five deputies to the St. Simons beaches to supplement state rangers and troopers. As of Saturday afternoon, Jump said his deputies had told only two people to return banned beach paraphernalia to their cars.

“According to patrols, beach visitors are mostly — if not all — locals enjoying the water close to their property,” Broce said. “They are walking along and maintaining social distancing from others.”

A not-so-welcoming sign greets visitors to Tybee Island on U.S. 80 at the entrance to the island on Saturday, April 4, 2020. (Photo: Stephen B. Morton/ Special to the AJC)
A not-so-welcoming sign greets visitors to Tybee Island on U.S. 80 at the entrance to the island on Saturday, April 4, 2020. (Photo: Stephen B. Morton/ Special to the AJC)

Credit: Stephen B. Morton

Credit: Stephen B. Morton

Still, Commissioner Allen Booker, the Democrat who represents Brunswick on the mainland, didn’t mince words.

“It is stupid and crazy at the same time,” he said. “It attracts to the beach larger groups of people, young and old and facilitates the spread of the COVID-19 virus, leading to people dying.”

Kemp’s order also vacated new rules on Tybee and in Glynn County banning short-term rentals through sites such as VRBO and Airbnb.

RELATED: Confusion surrounds Georgia’s coronavirus lockdown

Murphy said the commission passed the ban to keep people from New York, New Jersey and other hot spots from fleeing to the Golden Isles.

“Now that’s gone, too,” he said.

Not all local leaders panned Kemp’s order.

Glynn Commission Chairman Mike Browning told The Brunswick News he supported the executive order, noting it keeps social distancing requirements in place. Even so, he worried about the mixed messages.

“I do question whether it sends the message we want to send our community when you close the beach … and here we are a couple of weeks later and the beaches are opened up,” Browning told The News.

A local visitor walks along a dune crossover to Tybee Island beach with her handmade face mask on Saturday, April 4, 2020,  a day after Gov. Brian Kemp signed an executive order allowing people to exercise outside, with social distancing of at least 6 feet. (Photo: Stephen B. Morton/Special to the AJC)
A local visitor walks along a dune crossover to Tybee Island beach with her handmade face mask on Saturday, April 4, 2020, a day after Gov. Brian Kemp signed an executive order allowing people to exercise outside, with social distancing of at least 6 feet. (Photo: Stephen B. Morton/Special to the AJC)

Credit: Stephen B. Morton

Credit: Stephen B. Morton

Philip Graitcer, a retired CDC medical epidemiologist who lives on St. Simons, said he would not be going to the beach and condemned Kemp’s decision.

“The governor has created the perfect environment for the spread of COVID-19 that could prove to be especially painful since 55% of our population is over 65,” Graitcer said. “We only have a small regional hospital, and a coastal health department that lacks the necessary personnel and kits to do contact tracing.”

On Tuesday, Glynn commissioners extended the beach ban to April 30 and added the beaches on exclusive Sea Island. U.S. Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., is among the wealthy residents. Sea Island is privately owned by Philip Anschutz, a billionaire businessman.

Murphy considered the timing suspicious.

“We close the Sea Island beach on Tuesday and (Friday) night the governor reopens the beaches?” he said. “Interesting timing.”

Broce said there is no connection.

St. Simons correspondent Bert Roughton contributed to this report.

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