Tybee Island announces emergency declaration amid COVID-19 concerns

Local News

TYBEE ISLAND, Ga (WSAV) – Tybee Island took emergency action Friday to close beaches due to concerns about the spread of COVID-19 after large groups showed up on the beach throughout the week.

Mayor Shirley Sessions said she made an emergency declaration per authority given by the state but had a unanimous endorsement from the city council. She said it was a tough decision but one she had to make based on health and crowd concerns.

“What we’ve done is the right thing to do at this time,” Sessions said.

She shut down the beaches at 10 a.m. Friday, including the Back River, North Beach, Main Beach, Main Beach, Savannah River and Lazaretto Creek entrance.

Public consumption of alcohol is also restricted.

The action stemmed from concerns about spring break crowds, which took the city a little by surprise.

“What we were seeing yesterday is literally thousands of people on the beach when we’re in a state of emergency, both federal, state and local,” said City Manager Shawn Gillen. “We’ve seen people ignore that and come to the island from all over the state so that prompted us to take some pretty swift action.”

Gillen and Sessions said beaches were incredibly crowded Thursday with reports of underage drinking. Officials were concerned this was going to set a precedent, especially with schools being out for weeks — or maybe the rest of the year.

Watch Friday’s entire press conference in the video below:

Gillen said beaches will be patrolled by the Tybee Police Department and Georgia Highway Patrol. Violators could face up to a $1000 fine.

Officials say the Georgia Emergency Management Agency and Georgia Department of Transportation will assist in the closure or restriction of traffic onto and off of Tybee Island. Tybee officials say do not want to close Highway 80 but will if need be.

“We thought about closing the road, closing the beach, you know, working with our restaurants, our short term vacation rentals who, by the way, as you all know, are just struggling to stay afloat and ride this out,” Sessions said, recognizing the emergency order makes a bad situation worse for local businesses.

“Shutting down the beaches really doesn’t help too much,” said Kris Tucker, manager of Lighthouse Pizza. He said the restaurant will continue to do carry out orders until further notice.

“They haven’t shut the restaurant down yet, so we have half our dining room open,” Tucker added.

He says the restaurants that can are trying to move in the same direction in terms of takeout orders.

Meanwhile, the city is asking the governor to defer business taxes for restaurants, hotels and all businesses.

“Everybody is impacted by the health issue,” Sessions said, adding, “It’s hard to know if we will ever go back to the way it was before this. This is the 9/11 of 2020.”

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