ConnectCommentary: Some Beach, Somewhere: Much Ado About The Wrong Thing

Updated: Apr 6

Governor Brian Kemp has faced criticisms from all angles for his response to the COVID-19 pandemic, from his convoluted and confusing roll-out of his Shelter-In-Place mandate that left citizens agitated and in the dark for 24 hours, to his decision to follow Presidential precedent and announce that future updates to the official Order may be made solely by way of social media, to his conflicting explanations of the 6-foot, 10-person rule.

His decision to delay the implementation of a state-wide stay-at-home order (39 states had declared state-level social distancing and business closure mandates prior to Kemp’s announcement) was criticized by many as an “overreaction” and by many others as “too little, too late.”

The biggest hit Kemp has taken, however, came in response to a single topic: Beaches.

Late in the day on April 2, Kemp published his Shelter-In-Place Executive Order, which would go into effect at 6 p.m. the following day, Friday March 3. Very little attention was given in immediate press coverage, or on social media posts, following the publication of the Order, to any impacts on the state’s beaches and their associated towns.

Late in the day on April 3, as the Order went into effect, a trickle of complaints were heard as local news stories carried in media outlets of Georgia’s beach towns complained about the prospect of tourists flooding their beaches, but it wasn’t until yesterday, April 4, that the trickle turned into a tidal wave of criticism as social media picked up on the story and ran with it.

Whether Kemp’s Shelter-In-Place order, taken as a whole, is right or wrong, whether it is too late or too much, is a decision each person must make for themselves; However, there are several points about the specific “beach” aspect that need to be made.

Social media blasts about the beach issue were frequently couched in terms of “one day after Kemp signs Shelter-In-Place Order, he re-opens state beaches.” This, on its face, was false. These news stories and social media posts gave the impression, intentional or not, that Kemp closed beaches in his Shelter-In-Place Order, and then issue another order opening them back up – a patently false impression.

Kemp did not, in fact, even mention “beaches” specifically, much less execute an about-face on any shelter-in-place policy for beaches.

So how did all this controversy, confusion and anger come about, and why has it led to petitions circulation on Facebook asking for Kemp’s removal as Governor?

On March 19, Tybee Island officials issued an emergency directive in response to COVID-19, closing all public beaches and parking lots as well as banning the public consumption of alcohol. Several other Georgia beach towns issued similar local emergency orders closing public beaches.

On March 2, Georgia Governor Brian Kemp issued Executive Order, a Statewide “Shelter-In-Place order to go into effect at 6 p.m. the following day. Many social media posts from across the state praised Kemp for taking the step to put uniform, statewide protections again COVID-19 in place, while many other posts castigated the governor for waiting so long for taking that step.

The only legal way to accomplish that objective of a uniform and consistent response to COVID-19 that would be applicable throughout the state, was to include text within the order that removed any local-legislation that had already been enacted, and remove the opportunity for any future local legislation conflicting with the state mandate. And within Kemp’s Executive Order, he did just that, rescinding all local orders in place as a response to COVID-19 and banning any future COVD-related local legislation.

To do any less would make the issuance of a state-level order pointless and futile.

Additionally, leaving the option for conflicting local legislation would set up countless legal and logistical nightmares. If County A has less stringent rules than the Statewide order has, but County B doesn't have any orders at all and thus falls under state guidelines, how many of County B’s residents are going to crash County A’s borders, even if it violates the rules of the state-wide order? Human nature dictates that an apple hanging just out of reach, just over a border drawn on a map, presents a temptation that even people who normally wouldn't have wanted an apple, have trouble resisting.

Leaving the option for local rules available would have negated the purpose of issuing a state-wide mandate in the first place, and the state would have continued to evolve into a jigsaw-puzzle, patchwork quilt of conflicting restrictions, regulations, punishments and definitions.

Bottom line: Once the decision was made to issue a statewide order, rescinding all existing local legislation was a foregone conclusion: The reopening of the state’s beaches were a result of, not a reason for, any of Kemp’s actions or orders.

With that bottom line in mind, we can start looking at this as a level playing field. With the elimination of any local legislation, Georgia’s beaches, along with all other public lands in Georgia, can be considered open prior to Kemp’s Shelter-In-Place order. So what does Kemp’s order say about all public lands in Georgia?

The answer is, Nothing.

And the answer is ‘nothing” because Kemp’s stay-at-home and social distancing rules enacted in his Executive Order are not about locations, but about people’s actions. The order is not about where you can go, it is about why you can go and how you must behave when you get there. Location, whether is it is a beach, a state park, a church or a boat ramp, is irrelevant.

The rules put in place in the Executive Order say that people must stay home except for limited exceptions. Whether a beach, a park, a church or a boat ramp is open or closed does not change that order. Just because a beach is open, doesn’t make someone who wants to visit that beach exempt from the stay at home directive.

The rules put in place in the Executive Order say no government shall “allow more than 10 persons to gather in a single location if such gathering requires persons to stand or to be seated within six feet of any other person”

Just because a church is open, or a beach is open, or a boat ramp is open, that does not take away the ability, nor the responsibility, for those charged with enforcement of the Order to enforce that rule. Nor does the fact that a beach is open, a church is open, a boat ramp is open - take away our responsibility as citizens to adhere to rules regarding use of said beaches, boat ramps and buildings.

Those of us here in Northeast Georgia, like our brethren in the beach communities to the east, carry a blessing and a curse in this situation. We are very very lucky that the nearby surroundings - our forests and lakes and natural landscape - put us in the midst of beauty that makes taking reasonable advantage of the Executive Order’s allowance for leaving home to engage in ‘outdoor exercise activities” a pleasure that is not available to those in more urban settings.

On the flip side, it also makes our communities a target for those willing to break the rules of the Executive Order in order to take advantage of that very same beauty and “outdoor exercise activities” -

However, the order also gives us, and those beach towns - through the authority granted by the governor to the county sheriff and his deputies – the means to enforce the Order and take advantage of the protections against Covid-19 it offers, without impinging on our right as citizens of our unique communities to enjoy the advantages of our locale.

So, the beach may be open, the church may be open, the boat ramp may be open, the state park may be open, but the associated and regulated human behavior - that of social distancing – remains in effect, making beaches, boat ramps, churches, parks or any other specific locale, no different than a store parking lot, a conference room or an empty field.

The regulation is on behavior, not location. To rail against a location being open, out of fear that it will become a site of contagion despite the limits on social interaction that have been mandated, is a voluntary admission that we, as a public, cannot be trusted. It is a request to the government to take us by the hand, and walk with us every step of our day, to act as our conscious, to say, ‘no, remember, you cant go here right now, even though you want to,’ it is admitting that we need steering wheels on our backs so we can be guided, because we can’t pilot ourselves.


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