ATLANTA — Georgia’s coastal cities were quick to shutdown beaches to curb the spread of COVID-19. That was until Gov. Brian Kemp’s shelter-in-place order late last week reopened the beaches.

Kemp’s executive order sweeps across the entire state, mandating the strict closure of most businesses through April 13, with some exceptions — notably golf courses, gun stores and Georgia's beaches. 

The statewide order was meant to do away with a hodgepodge of social distancing and stay-at-home mandates put in place by local elected officials across the state’s 159 counties — some that had taken action long before the Republican governor.

Kemp’s order, he said on April 1, would “ensure uniformity across jurisdictions.” It suspends all local ordinances regarding coronavirus created after March 1 and blocks more from being instituted by cities and counties. 

Kemp had been hesitant to put the order in place and when he finally did, he cited what he called "new information" from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that some individuals infected with coronavirus are asymptomatic.

While this information had been widely known for several weeks, new research from the CDC showed that this could be up to as many as 25% of infected individuals. 

Kemp’s order allows, with social distancing, Georgians to visit beaches, but prohibits beachgoers from using chairs and umbrellas until April 13. The Department of Natural Resources is actively patrolling parks, lakes and beaches to ensure visitors are abiding by gathering limits and social distancing measures.

But officials are criticizing the decision and some are even exploring legal action to keep beaches closed.

Tybee Island, a small city near Savannah that thrives off of year-round tourism, closed its beaches March 20. In a statement, Tybee Mayor Shirley Sessions called the decision to reopen a “reckless mandate” and reiterated that beach access areas and parking lots will remain closed.

“As the Pentagon ordered 100,000 body bags to store the corpses of Americans killed by the coronavirus, Governor Brian Kemp dictated that Georgia beaches must reopen, and declared any decision makers who refused to follow these orders would face prison and/or fines,” Sessions said. “ ... Tybee City Council and I are devastated by the sudden directives and do not support (Kemp’s) decisions.”

Sessions said she and City Council will explore “legal avenues” to overturn Kemp’s order. In a video posted April 3, Sessions begged visitors to avoid the beaches, despite the governor’s order.

Kemp answered her outcry with a social media post of aerial photos of the town’s beaches that looked scarce of visitors, saying that state law enforcement reported no problems and “beachgoers are mostly locals and complying with social distancing orders.”

Savannah Mayor Van Johnson appeared on NBC Nightly News and spoke out against Kemp’s decision to reopen beaches, saying the order "does not compute."

“We are in the middle of a worldwide pandemic,” he said, “and while we are closing schools, we are reopening beaches.”

Tim Fleming, the governor’s chief of staff, posted on Facebook Saturday, defending the governor’s decision.

“Georgia – go to the beach, lake or a state park!” Fleming said. “They are all open and despite what the media is reporting there have been no issues on Georgia beaches or lakes today.”

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