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Saint Simons Island in Georgia was home to the annual Frat Beach on Friday, Nov. 1, 2019. Many University of Georgia students made use of their fall breaks to travel to Saint Simons for a day of partying on the beach.

Glynn County commissioners unanimously voted on Oct. 1 to ban alcohol on St. Simons Island beaches. The ban will go into effect only on Nov. 6 and 7, the weekend of the football game between the Georgia Bulldogs and Florida Gators in Jacksonville. 

Commissioners are concerned about the weekend creating a superspreading event of the coronavirus that could lead to a spike in COVID-19 cases in the county. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, superspreading events are associated with sustained transmission of the virus in later stages.

“They’re not 6 inches apart from each other, much less 6 feet,” District 2 Commissioner J. Peter Murphy said at the meeting.

COVID-watch

The order bans the possession or consumption of alcohol on all beaches on the island, Glynn County public communications manager Matthew Kent said in an interview with The Red & Black, but the beach will remain open. Only Gov. Brain Kemp has the authority to close the beach. In April, counties clashed with the governor when his executive order lifted local restrictions to reopen the state’s beaches. 

In mid-July, Glynn county saw a surge of cases due to summer travel over Memorial Day and July Fourth, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Kent said the county will send a letter to Kemp asking for help. The governor’s response will help them move forward with more concrete plans, he said.  

Over the last two weeks, the county has recorded 100 COVID-19 cases, according to the Georgia Department of Public Health

“I think what we have here is a public health and public relations challenge which has been unprecedented,” Murphy said. 

The commissioners still expect droves of students to make their way from various colleges in the state to St. Simons Island on Nov. 6-7. Commissioner Bill Brunson expressed concern about students returning to their colleges and spreading COVID-19 on campus.

“All you have to do is look at sorority and fraternity issues across the country, unauthorized parties where a large number of students come back infected with the virus... to see that’s an issue,” Murphy said.

Kemp’s COVID-19 public health state of emergency requires cities and counties to prevent gatherings of more than 50 people where 6 feet of social distancing cannot be enforced. The state of emergency was recently extended through Nov. 9.

Blurred lines

The county police chief’s office is still working on how to enforce the ban, according to county Chief of Police Jay Wiggins. County officials and the fire, EMS and sheriff’s departments began planning on Monday.

All officers will wear personal protective equipment when patrolling the beach that weekend, Wiggins said.

The consequences for violating the ban are still unknown. Some of the options discussed at the meeting include issuing citations, pouring out and confiscating alcohol or making arrests. 

“If we start making arrests for every person... it will very quickly overwhelm our resources,” Wiggins said.

Kent said the county will ask for reinforcements from the Department of Natural Resources and Georgia State Patrol.

The ban also brings up a Fourth Amendment issue of how to conduct a legal search and seizure of alcohol on the beach. Wiggins explained that officers can sometimes tell that students drinking on the beach are underage, which gives them probable cause, however he said these students typically don’t have identification with them. 

St. Simons Island resident Julian Smith is skeptical of the county’s ban. 

“The problem is this ban is unenforceable,” Smith said in an interview with The Red & Black.

Smith suggested the county simply not do anything, from reducing police presence altogether and not offering mobile restrooms. He also said the CDC should “be taking names” for contact tracing purposes to see how many cases stem from the weekend festivities. 

Glynn County officials have a little over one month to create a safe environment for visitors and residents. They must try to balance keeping thousands of students safe from excessive alcohol consumption and keeping officers and students safe from COVID-19.

Kent said drone and helicopter footage could be used to monitor the crowds from a safe distance. That way, police and emergency services would only be sent into the crowd when absolutely necessary.

“We're trying to plan for, you know, a worst case scenario in this situation and always hope for the best,” Kent said. “It's the first time that we have banned alcohol on the beach for at least this weekend.”

 

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