COVID-19: Destin Votes to Close Public and Private Beaches
Following moves from Okaloosa and Walton counties, the city of Destin voted unanimously Friday morning to close beaches in city limits from March 21 through April 30 to prevent spread of coronavirus.
Ninety percent of Destin’s beaches are privately owned, but City Council members decided an all-or-nothing approach would be the best option.
“If we’re only closing 10% of the beaches, what is that going to affect,” asked Councilman Skip Overdier. “That’s like putting a three-alarm fire out with a garden hose.”
The resolution passed closes all beaches and asks Gov. Ron DeSantis to take necessary action to close beaches the city cannot close legally.
Councilman Chatham Morgan, who also is a partner at three Destin restaurants, expressed a need for a more blanket approach across the state.
“I think it’s really frustrating that the state legislation tries all session to strip us of home rule and then when an emergency crisis comes, they’re depending on a 32-year-old who sells tacos and sandwiches to make these kinds of decisions,” he said. “I wish we would see (the state) take a little bit more of a lead.”
Just 24 hours after speaking to Okaloosa County Board of Commissioners, Dr. Karen Chapman of the Florida Department of Health in Okaloosa County spoke to the City Council and gave the same advice: limit crowds of people as much as possible.
“This virus couldn’t come at a worse time because of spring break,” she said. “I don’t want us to get a place where the whole county has to shut down. We need desperately to reduce social interaction.”
Chapman also made clear that it’s not going to the beach that’s a risk. It’s going to the beach with a large mass of strangers.
“That 10 rule? That’s supposed to be 10 people you know,” she said in reference to new restrictions limiting crowds of 10 people or more.
Councilman Steven Menchel did his homework prior to the meeting, calling local medical providers to get an idea of how many beds and how much equipment was available to treat people. In the South Okaloosa, there are approximately 65 ICU beds and 33 ventilators, he reported.
“That’s certainly not enough to cover our own people,” he said.
Although beaches are closed, Destin Fire Control Beach Safety Chief Joe D’Agostino said at this time there will be no changes to staffing. Additionally, Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office will still have spring break detail in place, which had already been paid for by Tourist Development Center funds. Deputies will monitor beach access and cite those who fail to comply with new rules.
In Destin, a city that lives and breathes tourism, councilmembers were prepared for opposition, but only a few public comments were made.
Local businessman Claude Perry acknowledged that closing beaches would be the safest option to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, but said it would hit the economy harder.
“You can’t just ruin people’s lives. I urge you not to close these beaches, I think it’s a mistake,” he said.
But as Councilman Morgan pointed out, tourism will get hit no matter what. Ed Rogers, owner of Sunshine Pontoon Rentals said he’s already feeling the hit.
“I own two condos and I’ve lost $17,000 in cancelations in two days,” Rogers said. “I don’t have a single boat rental in April and I don’t have a single condo rental in April. Keep us in mind … what we care about now is our employees.”
As a business owner, Morgan said his life has been “flipped upside down,” as well as the lives of his 40 employees.
“I’m forced to rely on experts from the medical field and the science field and our politicians at the highest level,” he said. “I think our decision today goes in line with what they’re all strongly recommending and urging.”
Before taking the vote Menchel made a point to let people in the room, and the 168 people watching from home, know that the resolution is only temporary.
“This is not a permanent thing,” he said. “We hope this is over sooner than later. We’re not going to make everybody happy. This city has gone through lots of other crises. We have to do everything we can do to protect our people. This thing will pass.”