I-TEAM: People heed the warning on distancing during holiday weekend
Monday, May 25, 2020
Memorial Day marks the unofficial beginning of summer activities, but this year life on the water is much different due to social distancing rules.
Georgia’s Department of Natural Resources has been stopping boaters throughout the state, including Clark's Hill. But our I-TEAM found most of the stops over this weekend did not result in tickets.
People have been home and unable to travel for months, now given the time they did not in previous years to hit our waterways much earlier than this weekend.
An old church song echoes from a small crowd in front of the Savannah River while families take in the view from Riverstreet Marina.
“This weekend is usually our kickoff to the summer, it’s usually a pretty busy weekend," Cpl. Bobby Timmerman with the Georgia DNR said.
But this year is anything but usual. The Department of Natural Resources’ busy season began months before the Memorial Day weekend, around the same time as the governor’s stay-at-home orders.
Cpl. Timmerman has been enforcing social distancing rules on the water in our area since the pandemic began.
“We have had excuses and people saying they live in the same household," Cpl. Timmerman said. “We had to go and break up parties but I think the word has gotten out.”
But that was then… And this is now.
“The majority of the people we saw this weekend, their boats weren’t tied, they were staying apart, they were keeping in groups of their families," Cpl. Timmerman said.
The I-TEAM pulled statewide boating statistics from the DNR for Saturday and Sunday. DNR issued a total of 27 citations for boating while under the influence, four of those were in Thomson. There were a total of six people injured over the weekend one of which was in Thomson.
There are zero violations listed for breaking social distancing rules over the weekend.
"Is your first rule not to ticket someone for social distancing- to first talk them?” Liz Owens, I-TEAM reporter asked.
“It is. If it’s someone we are having issues with and someone we are having to deal with over and over again…but majority of the public understand," Cpl. Timmerman said.
“You are trying to avoid giving people tickets?” Liz asked.
"Correct. We don’t want to and if they can break it up then we are good with that," Cpl. Timmerman said.
The DNR has given more than a thousand verbal warnings about social distancing since the pandemic began. Only once did they cite someone. And according to the incident report, a man became combative and blew his breath on an officer with DNR. He went to jail.
"Has your job become more difficult with making sure people are social distancing on the water?" Liz asked.
“It has, we are pretty short-staffed," Cpl. Timmerman said. "The guys that cover this end, they only have three guys that cover Richmond, Burke, Jefferson, Glascock, so they have six counties and there are three guys (6).”
That’s half of the normal amount of officers for our area. There are currently 21 vacant positions statewide.
"Do you think this is how the rest of the summer is going to be?” Liz asked.
“I don’t know. I hope not," Cpl. Timmerman said. "Hopefully we can get over all of this and figure out a way we can enjoy each other’s company again.”
But for now- boaters can only enjoy the company of ten people at a time, from a six-foot distance.
Part of the reason for the DNR's staffing shortage is because of the pandemic. Cadets were scheduled to graduate before the busy July 4th weekend- but graduation is now delayed because school was put on hold for several months.