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Beach Vacationers Pack St. George Island Over Memorial Day Weekend

Plenty of people remembered Florida’s “Forgotten Coast” during Memorial Day weekend.

St. George Island was packed with visitors enjoying a vacation without masks and social distancing — the way life was before the pandemic. But not everyone had been vaccinated before kicking off summer on the beach.

Franklin County’s Tourism Development Council markets the area’s beaches as the state’s “Forgotten Coast.” Parking lots near the beach were filled with cars, trucks and SUVs. Dozens lined East Gulf Beach Drive and the surrounding roads because there weren’t enough parking spaces.

“This is not the forgotten coast anymore,” said Haley Sizemore, who lives in Sopchoppy, a town about 40 miles away near Wakulla County. Sizemore says she’s visited the island periodically throughout the pandemic, and this is the busiest she’s seen it. “Everybody’s like ooh small town, let me go.”

Valerie Crowder
Haley Sizemore and her family play frisbee on the beach at St. George Island on Monday, May 31, 2021.

Aside from the small island town’s beaches, its main attraction is a lighthouse. It also has rows of vacation houses, several hotels and inns, shops and cafes and a popular beach bar and restaurant called the Blue Parrot.

Over the weekend, crowds of people packed the island’s stores and restaurants. Almost no one wore a mask.

“We went to Blue Parrot and got a couple of drinks and we’re playing games and just hanging out,” said Sizemore, whose family was visiting from out of town. Not all of them had gotten the COVID-19 vaccine. Still they didn’t express worry or fear about people crowding into the island’s restaurants and shops without masks.

“We’re glad to be back to normal,” Sizemore said. “We’ve been just kind of going with it.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s COVID-19 vaccination data shows 38% of Franklin County’s residents are fully vaccinated.

According to the latest CDC guidance, wearing a mask and practicing social distancing aren’t necessary for fully-vaccinated people unless they’re immunocompromised or around others with weakened immune systems. The agency advises those who aren’t two weeks past their final dose to continue following coronavirus health and safety guidelines to protect themselves from becoming infected.

Justin Gilland.jpg
Valerie Crowder
Justin Gilland traveled from Marietta, Georgia to spend the week on Florida's Gulf Coast, starting with St. George Island on Memorial Day weekend.

Justin Gilland and his wife drove about 350 miles from Marietta, Georgia to the island. They arrived on Saturday and plan to stay through the week. He says Sunday was the busiest day.

“Today is a little less crowded than it was yesterday. But it was a shocker — I didn’t expect that many,” Gilland said. “Everybody seems to be having a good time and being safe. And it’s good to be back out and see people without masks and just enjoying themselves.”

Gilland and his wife received the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 shot in March. With the vaccine now readily available, he’s not concerned about people practicing social distancing or wearing masks, Gilland said.

“If you don’t want to get it and you want to come out, that’s your choice,” Gilland said. “People that still want to wear masks, that’s cool too. But it’s good to see things progressing along the way they are.”

Valerie Crowder
Jeff Allen enjoyed the beach with friends on Memorial Day weekend at St. George Island in Franklin County, Florida.

Tallahassee resident Jeff Allen, 44, visits the island regularly. Allen hasn’t yet received the COVID-19 shot, but he says he plans to get it. He says he’s not worried about getting infected with the virus by sitting on the beach with his friends. “Because most people are getting vaccinated, it will be alright to go without a mask,” Allen said. “We’re all spaced out.”

Allen says he’s not surprised the island was busy because people are ready to return to a pre-pandemic normal. “Everybody has been locked in the house,” he said. “Getting back on the beach is one way of doing it.”