Officials explain rules during April LLA webinar

The lake is open. Come on in. But, if you’re in a group, don’t do anything to draw attention to yourself. Someone might snap a picture and zip it to law enforcement. Rangers will be dispatched. They really don’t want to have to come after you. That’s one of the messages officials with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers relayed in an April 9 webinar hosted by the Lake Lanier Association.

The lake advocacy organization used the internet-based format to allow a few hundred participants to listen to and question DNR Major Mike England and Corps Projects Manager Tim Rainey about how Georgia’s shelter in place order impacted those who boat, fish, sunbathe and recreate around Lake Lanier. “The response was overwhelming,” said LLA President John Barker.

Within hours after LLA emailed members about the webinar, it filled up with participants wanting to know how measures to halt the spread of coronavirus would affect lake outings. Ga. Gov. Brian Kemp’s order was set to expire on April 30. Some businesses could reopen before then. But, as England reported, from its beginning April 3, the governor made exceptions for outdoor recreation. “It does allow you to go out in a boat, to go fishing and hiking” and more, he said.

Other messages from the hour-long webinar included: Marinas could open. Dock builders could hammer away. Lake restaurants could serve take-out orders. The 10-person limit also applied to private docks. Fishing guides could help anglers cast from their boats. But England emphasized the main point: “We encourage folks to stay away from others … try not to congregate.”

“The state of Georgia is not closing any boat ramps,” England said, nor did it close any state parks. But, he noted, the state doesn’t own every ramp or park. Some, operated by the Corps, cities, counties, and private entities, were closed. “The governor’s order did not impact our operation … we had already done it” several weeks prior, Corps official Rainey said. All the park restrooms closed, as did some parks and Corps offices; but 24-day use parks remained open as of April 22. “You can use them, but we’re not encouraging visitors,” Rainey added.

England urged lake goers to abide by social distancing guidelines that no more than 10 people assemble and that non-family members stay 6 feet apart. He said raft-ups are OK, but recommended boaters rope up six feet away from each other. “Don’t tie up boats to make it look like it’s a big party going on,” he said. Same for mooring on islands. It’s fine for folks to pack a picnic and escape on one of Lanier’s scattered islands, but don’t make a scene.

“Someone will take a photo and send a complaint (to DNR) and we’ll have to come out and count,” England said.

DNR rangers and city/county lake patrols are still out there, he added, but their mission is complaint-driven. “There have been a lot of ghost complaints,” he said, including photos showing throngs of people on islands or lines of cars at parks that were actually taken long before Georgia’s shelter order began. When they got the photos, DNR sent rangers out to investigate. “Nope … there’s no one here. People are making this stuff up trying to get the lake or a park closed,” England said. “There have been a lot of false alarms, false calls.”

When rangers found groups not abiding by social distancing guidelines, they separated without incident, he reported.

The day to day job of rangers in the six DNR boats patrolling Lake Lanier is “not normal,” England said. Rangers were not stopping and checking safety equipment and registrations to avoid the risk of close contact with boaters. But, officers “are still out there on normal patrols” and will write tickets “only for folks who are really asking us to by acting up and cutting up.” That includes recklessness, excessive speed, and improper lighting.

He also said DNR partnered with the Georgia State Patrol to monitor parking lots at parks and boat ramps. Vehicles parked in the road or blocking gates would be hauled off.

He mentioned that the governor knows just how many people are at parks and on beaches at Georgia State Parks, including Don Carter on Lake Lanier. Indeed, the afternoon after Georgia went under the shelter in place order, two DNR officers stood at the pavilion overlooking the park beach and a helicopter hovered first over the beach and then above the RV campground. “Staff will turn people away once (a park or beach) reaches capacity,” England said.

“Georgia’s order did not impact our operation. We had already done it,” said Rainey of federal oversight of Corps operation on Lanier. “We started planning really early with guidance from our headquarters.” Parks not already open for the season stayed closed. All restrooms closed. The Corps office closed and staff began teleworking. Site visits and inspections on dock permits ceased.

But some operations continued. The maintenance contractor still picked up trash on the shoreline. Picnickers could still dine at lakeside tables. “We will respond as needed” to complaints about unpermitted shoreline activity, Rainey said, such as reports of trees being cut on Corps property.

The webinar was organized by LLA Executive Director Jennifer Flowers, assisted by membership chair Kelly Marlow, each of whom fielded questions participants emailed in advance or typed during the webinar. One questioner asked about the potential transmission of the coronavirus through sand, water, or organic material. England’s response seemed to reflect the state’s attitude about the importance of continuing outdoor recreation during trying times. “I’m not a scientist, but I would not worry about swimming in the lake or going out on the beach … I would let my kids.”

For up to date information about parks and boat ramps see Georgia DNR, Corps, or To report violations of social distancing guidelines to DNR: 800-241-4113. Contact appropriate city or county agency for updates on lake parks they operate.