St. Simons beaches closed due to coronavirus concerns

The lighthouse on St. Simons Island. AJC photo: Jennifer Brett

The lighthouse on St. Simons Island. AJC photo: Jennifer Brett

The beaches were open when the sun set Friday; it is anyone’s guess when they will open again.

Glynn County officials Friday afternoon officially closed the St. Simons Island beaches beginning at 6 a.m. Saturday until at least April 13.

County officials believed they had no real choice. Florida has closed its beaches, and Tybee Island, near Savannah, has closed its as well. Jekyll Island, which also is in Glynn County, also is expected to close its beaches. Private Sea Island was not covered by the commissioners’ action.

“So, if they can’t go to Florida or Tybee, where do you think everyone from Atlanta is going to want to go?” asked Commissioner Peter Murphy, a retired physician who represents the island. “St. Simons is kind of backed into the corner.”

It was a sudden and wrenching change for the Golden Isles, which has moved slowly to embrace the need to seriously alter lives that often move to the rhythm of what T-shirts here describe as “Island Time.”

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A few local restaurants already have shifted to take-out and delivery only, but the parking lots at the beaches have remained reasonably full and were becoming more crowded with cars filled with kids on spring break.

As the heat rose Friday afternoon, Trent Jackson, on break from his classes at Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona, was headed to Coast Guard Beach with his friend, Gage Clark. Both are from Wayne County.

The parking lot was jammed. People of all ages pulled strollers and carts laden with umbrellas, chairs and coolers to the crowded white, sandy beach.

“I just think it’s a lot of hype,” said Jackson, 20, as he tossed and caught a football. Like most college students, he’s unsure exactly when he will return to classes.

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Clark, 17, who is still in high school, agreed.

“I think it’s problem, but they’re making more of it than it is,” he said.

Nevertheless, both said they were taking appropriate precautions – washing their hands and such – but there was zero social distancing to be seen on the beach Friday. People were grouped tightly around umbrellas and played at surf’s edge as if nothing had changed.

Clark and Jackson had discussed the broader implications of the pandemic while sitting on the beach.

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“I know that this is something my kids are going to learn about in history class one day,” Clark observed. “But I know we wouldn’t die if we get it. The only thing I really worry about is my grandparents. I don’t want to take a chance of giving it to them. But it is what it is.”

One Glynn County commissioner earlier this week expressed deep frustration at what he saw as a lax attitude toward the pandemic in the Golden Isles.

"If there was a concern by the general public over the coronavirus, you would not have known it by the thousands of people on St. Simons Island (Sunday)," Commissioner Bob Campbell told The Brunswick News. "I mean, they were everywhere, and it really concerns me. God only knows how many were on Jekyll."

He said other communities appear to be taking the coronavirus more seriously.

“It doesn’t make any sense why we would be any different than any other area,” Campbell said. “If we don’t have the (infected) numbers that some of these other counties and states are throwing out, great. Let’s do something to keep it that way.”

Closing the beaches is the latest blow to the tourism industry here that had been regaining steam after a series of damaging near misses from hurricanes. County officials have reported cancellations at the convention center on Jekyll Island. Hotels are reporting individual cancellations.

The American Enterprise Institute's annual World Forum at Sea Island, where Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Michael Pompeo and senior adviser Jared Kushner, were scheduled to appear, was canceled earlier this month, The Brunswick News reported.

Pence is now leading a national task force on coronavirus response.

Coastal Georgia is sensitive to even minor shifts in tourism. While Glynn County is home to billionaires on Sea Island, it also has deep pockets of poverty on the mainland. More than 60% of Glynn County workers are employed in service and retail jobs. Poverty on the islands is rare, but it is common on the mainland. In one Brunswick Census tract, nearly 80 percent of the children live in poverty.

For Walker Scarboro, 18, McKenzie Cox, 16, the beach has become the last place they can see friends from Brunswick High School, many of whom are heading to college in the fall.

“Our year is basically over, we won’t have prom, this is all we have,” Cox said. “I’m basically coming here to get out of the house. But if they close it, I guess we just wouldn’t come anymore.”

Retiree Kevin Austin is a regular sight on the beach with morning walks with his dog, Ranger. He will miss his time on the sand, but he sees the greater purpose.

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“It’s about time,” Austin said of the county’s decision. “There’s a core of responsible dog walkers who observe best practices. But some young people — and families — don’t seem to be taking the threat seriously.”

Trent Jackson, 20, and Gage Clark, 17, believe the media is exaggerating the problem. AJC photo: Bert Roughton Jr.

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