“What lockdown?! Down here, beaches are open!” the Instagram caption reads, below a photo of a man in a baseball cap and pastel Bermuda shorts, posing against the pristine blue skies and taupe shoreline of Georgia’s Tybee Island. Known for its picturesque beaches, the island is popular among residents of Savannah, located 15 miles away, as well as out-of-state tourists. “I wish my friends could come enjoy this magical place with me. There are worse places to ride out #quarantine for sure,” reads the caption of another.
Tybee Island closed its beaches last month, a few weeks into the COVID-19 pandemic; the decision was reversed by Gov. Brian Kemp’s executive order, which opened Georgia beaches up again. Currently, they’re open only for exercise, and visitors are not permitted to bring chairs or umbrellas. “We’re very different from Florida. We’re not open fully or to the public,” a visitors center representative for Golden Isles, a region made up of the city of Brunswick and four barrier islands off the coast of Georgia, tells Rolling Stone.
But social media posts tell a different story about how rigorously state residents are abiding by these guidelines. “I see plenty of people out and about there in their posts. Just chilling and tanning and hanging out,” says Megan Noel, a podcaster from Savannah. And following Kemp’s partial lifting of various lockdown guidelines, against public health officials’ suggestion last Friday, including opening up businesses such as nail salons and certain restaurants, some state residents have interpreted the ordinance as permission to resume other aspects of their lives, including visiting the beaches. “The beaches are packed,” says Lexi Torrence, 22, who lives in Savannah.
“Typically what you see when you drive past [people on the beach] is, they’ll suddenly start doing push-ups or something,” Shawn Gillen, the city manager of Tybee Island, tells Rolling Stone.
Gillen says that last weekend, Tybee Island saw about 6,700 visitors, according to data tracking how many cars enter the island via bridge. Very few of them wore masks, he said, and he saw people sitting in groups on towels counter to the ordinance, with some groups being broken up by Georgia State Patrol officials. He also said that over the weekend the officials had to issue a few dozen tickets to people on the beach who refused to adhere to social distancing guidelines mandating that people stay six feet apart. One man was asked to leave the beach altogether.
Almost 7,000 guests is less than would normally be expected during the month of April, but Gillen is expecting the number to continue to trend upward, particularly after the state’s shelter-in-place order expires on April 30th. “Basically, the beaches will be wide open, so we expect to start hitting the 10,000 numbers. Saturday and Sunday we’ll be in the 10,000 range,” he predicts.
With more crowds, he’s anticipating further difficulties keeping people apart. “We have about five miles of beachfront, and when you get thousands of people on the beach like you got Saturday, you have thousands of people and four to five officers trying to enforce the rules,” he says. “That’s a challenge.”
“My birthday is tomorrow, and I’d love to go to the beach,” says Torrence. “But I also don’t want to get coronavirus for my birthday.”