There were cars parked on both sides of roads at Cloudland Canyon State Park on Saturday, even here where a side road ends at the Back Country Trail.
Dade County has spent the past decade doing everything but backflips to bring in more tourism, but the COVID-19 virus has changed all that. After swarms of tourists overwhelmed Cloudland Canyon State Park this weekend, Dade's Y'all Come attitude may be going the way of the hug, the party and the church service.
"Our lives have changed, and our way of thinking's got to change," said Dade County Chief Executive Ted Rumley, discussing the issue at Sunday's regular 3 p.m. county update about "the Situation." He said he'd talked to Georgia Sen. Jeff Mullis--whom Dade usually consults about how to bring people into the county--about what Dade can do now to keep them out.
Saturday was a heartbreakingly beautiful spring day, and it brought thousands and thousands of people sick to death of self-quarantine to enjoy the sunshine and fresh air of Georgia's most-visted state park, which also happens to be situated in Dade, one of the only Georgia counties with no confirmed cases of the deadly coronavirus. Yet.
Rumley said at his 3 p.m. Sunday briefing that one tourist from Moultrie, Ga., he'd talked to that morning, when he went to the park to check it out after receiving multiple phone calls about the mass pilgrimage, had told him Dade's freedom from disease was what had brought him there. "They were looking for counties that were white," said the county boss.
"White," that is, not in the old JIm Crow sense but in the new public health map color-coding sense--the lighter the shading, the fewer confirmed cases. The man and his family planned to stay a couple weeks, said Rumley, because they felt safer here.
But the influx of travelers from all over, including more heavily-stricken places like Atlanta and the metro counties, has not made feel Dade Countians feel safer. That, anyway, was what Rumley said his callers told him. "They're worried about transmitting the virus, moving it from one area of the state or the country to another," he said.
And as for social distancing? The Planet was briefly at the park on Saturday and observed sizeable groups of people, many clearly not in family situations. There were gaggles of girlfriends, bevies of boys swarming down the road toward the trails. Rangers directed traffic at turnings and stood at trailheads to keep too many people from going down Cloudland Canyon's famous 600 steps to the waterfalls at once, in order to maintain the requisite six feet apart.
But it seemed an impossible task to keep so many people distant from one another. Even remote backroads had cars parked on both sides with masses of people disgorging from them onto the pavement, and The Planet did not observe that the crowds were walking six feet apart. By the time The Planet left, new visitors were being turned away at the gate.
Other commissioners have issued Facebook releases about the possibility of getting an emergency injunction to keep Dade safe from infection. Rumley said other states had closed down their parks but lacking that, perhaps Cloudland Canyon could in any case be subject to limited visitation, he suggested.
Rumley said he would talk more about what he'd learned at today's 3 p.m. update, available at the Dade County, Ga., Facebook page live, and on The Planet's FB page thereafter.