Second-home owners, renters flock to small towns amid COVID-19 crisis

Tybee Mayor Shirley Sessions made the decision to close beaches after an influx of part-time residents and renters arrived in mid-March. The empty beaches, shown here in 2017 after Hurricane Irma, helped reduce the number of people coming to the island and promote the practice of social distancing. CURTIS COMPTON / CCOMPTON@AJC.COM
Tybee Mayor Shirley Sessions made the decision to close beaches after an influx of part-time residents and renters arrived in mid-March. The empty beaches, shown here in 2017 after Hurricane Irma, helped reduce the number of people coming to the island and promote the practice of social distancing. CURTIS COMPTON / CCOMPTON@AJC.COM

The weekend before beaches closed on Tybee Island, the popular coastal town saw its highest number of visitors for the month. More than 10,000 people crossed U.S. 80 to get to the island, but city officials were on high alert. COVID-19 was a growing threat, and there were too many people converging on just 3 miles of beach.

“People who tend to want to come to Tybee want to come to the beach,” said Mayor Shirley Sessions. With 3,500 full-time residents who share a few miles of beach with inhabitants of 1,200 registered vacation rentals and about 750 second-home owners, the only way to encourage social distancing was to shut down the beach. Soon after Sessions closed beaches on March 19, traffic onto the island hit an all-time low at just over 3,000 cars with more people leaving the island than arriving.

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As the spread of COVID-19 intensifies in metro Atlanta, some residents have flocked to smaller towns, like Tybee Island and Highlands, North Carolina, where they own second homes or hope to book extended stays, said town officials. But the influx of people is worrisome to town officials concerned about the impact on local hospitals and the practice of social distancing. As of Thursday, Georgia had a 472% increase in confirmed cases of COVID-19 in just one week, and dozens have died from the virus.

This week, Fannin County, which has 1,400 rental cabins and more than 4,500 second homes according to county news sources, passed an emergency declaration that would keep out Atlantans and others who live in places with a stay-at-home order. The city of Clayton in Rabun County passed a resolution to support social distancing as an increasing number of seasonal residents arrived in town.

Just across the state line in Highlands, North Carolina, city officials took more drastic measures, implementing mandatory 14-day quarantines for second-home owners and their visitors who come to the city from anywhere outside the Cashiers-Highlands plateau. In South Carolina, Gov. Henry McMaster went on Twitter this week to make it clear that he expected out-of-state visitors planning a stay of two or more nights to self-quarantine for two weeks upon arrival.

Closer to the metro area, one community, Serenbe in Chattahoochee Hills, is welcoming local transplants who seek a respite by offering them accommodations in guest rooms and cottages with plenty of room to spread out.

The Serenbe community in Chattahoochee Hills offers plenty of space for social distancing. CONTRIBUTED BY MIA YAKEL PHOTOGRAPHY
The Serenbe community in Chattahoochee Hills offers plenty of space for social distancing. CONTRIBUTED BY MIA YAKEL PHOTOGRAPHY

“All of the things that Serenbe offers and has offered just happen to coincide with working with this new everyday life we have found,” said COO Garnie Nygren. The planned community just south of Atlanta features 700 acres of protected green space and 15 miles of trails, Nygren said. “It allows for access to nature and walkability for those moments of reconnecting with yourself and meditating without running into a thousand other people,” she said.

Nygren had already been fielding calls from locals asking if they could come for extended stays when she decided to send an email to subscribers alerting them to stays ranging from five nights to four weeks. But Nygren is clear that visitors should come with a sense of responsibility. “If you find yourself alone or with your family and you are in a space where you don’t have sidewalks or walkability … this can offer that alternative, so come and be respectful and thoughtful,” she said.

Even in these unprecedented times, some second-home owners continue to view their homes as an escape, and that can make for dangerous practices during a time of uncertainty.

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“You come to the mountains and there is fresh air and not as many people — that has been imprinted in so many people’s minds, and we love to promote that in normal times,” said Patrick Taylor, mayor of Highlands, North Carolina, a town of 1,000 permanent residents just north of the state line. But these are not normal times. “We are very concerned that people, especially in the hot zones, will try to escape and come to Highlands and what they are doing is spreading the virus,” he said.

When second-home owners from Georgia, Louisiana, Florida and Texas called to ask if they could come into town, city staffers politely told them it wasn’t recommended, Taylor said. On Wednesday, the town put measures in place for those who come anyway.

Second-home owners coming to their properties from outside the area are asked to spend 14 days in quarantine, said Taylor. If they open their homes to out-of-state visitors, their guests must do the same. Hotels are shut down, and town officials have banned VRBO and Airbnb rentals. If they discover someone has moved into a rental, the individual will be contacted by local law enforcement and required to remain in quarantine for 14 days, Taylor said.

Downtown Highlands features a large variety of shops, restaurants, galleries and hotels. PHOTO CREDIT: Highlands Chamber of Commerce
Downtown Highlands features a large variety of shops, restaurants, galleries and hotels. PHOTO CREDIT: Highlands Chamber of Commerce

Credit: HANDOUT

Credit: HANDOUT

One of the biggest concerns in towns with large numbers of seasonal residents is the additional stress on health services, particularly intensive care. There is no ICU at the Highlands-Cashiers hospital, Taylor said. “Normally in July, we have 10,000 people show up, and we have the resources and the town services to address that. In this critical situation, we think it would aggravate transmission of the COVID-19 virus,” Taylor said.

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Just south in Rabun County, city of Clayton Mayor Jordan Green expressed similar concerns. Green, a fireman and paramedic in Gainesville, said while Clayton has a good emergency response system, it does not have a critical care hospital. The closest hospital with an ICU is in Habersham County, he said, about a 30-minute drive.

In the past week, local officials have watched the county population balloon from the usual 25,000 or so to about 50,000 or more, Green said. After an emergency meeting earlier this week, the city passed a resolution moving restaurants to takeout-only service.

“A lot of the people who come up here are property owners, and they have the right to be here,” Green said. “We are not trying to be isolationists, but the general feeling is the people in this community understand the social isolation program.” Those coming from different areas may feel they are evacuating to a safe haven, and sometimes they don’t bring the same sense of rules and values with them, Green said.

Green said he and council members have been working hard to make the best choice for everyone, including the businesses in town, but this is no time for business as usual. “We are in the middle of a crisis,” Green said. “I hope that when this is over, people remember us and know that we are open.”