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00000177-b32b-d5f4-a5ff-bbfb6e660000Here is the information you need to know about COVID-19 in Northwest Florida. We will keep this post updated with the latest information from local, and statewide agencies. For inforamtion from Centers for Disease Control and prevention: cdc.gov/coronavirusFor updates on Florida cases of coronavirus, visit the FDOH dashboard.The COVID-19 call center is available at 24/7 at 1-866-779-6121

Beach Reopening A ‘Reasoned Approach’ In Okaloosa

Savannah Vasquez/Courtesy Photo

Okaloosa County Board of Commissioners voted Tuesday morning to reopen all beaches from 6:30 to 9 a.m. and 4 to 7:30 p.m. daily starting May 1. 

Chairman Trey Goodwin said he believed the limited reopening was a “reasoned approach” at a time when people have been asked to give up a lot from closures of recreational facilities to layoffs.

“Folks are wearing out with this,” he said. “Fortunately, in Okaloosa County, our citizens are good stewards of the public and have done their part to reduce the spread. This gives us a plan, a target. It is cautious, but it is movement.”

As commissioners meet every week, they will assess the beach situation and discusses moving into different phases until the beaches are completely reopened. Phase II will add extra hours and commercial activities, and Phase III will be normal operations. 

“We’ll take it a step at a time,” said Commissioner Kelly Windes. “That’s why we meet every week. The bottom line is we got to start somewhere.” 

This decision comes after beaches reopened in Georgia and most recently in Jacksonville. Commissioner Carolyn Ketchel said she would like to see what happens in those areas before taking drastic measures. 

“We have to keep the public safe,” she said through video call. “I’ve heard from many, many citizens who have asked us not to move quickly.” 

The handful of public comments at the meeting were in strong favor of completely reopening not just the beaches, but businesses — although opening businesses is out of the purview of the board. 

“First Amendment rights trumps everything,” said Anne Ziegenhorn. “If we wish to do something it should not be taken away from us.” 

Last month, commissioners voted to close all public and private beaches in the county jurisdiction through April 30 to reduce spread and detract tourists. While planning to reopen the beaches in phases, the county has looked at state orders and President Trump’s guidelines on reopening the country. 

On March 27, Gov. Ron DeSantis has issued an executive order to ban short-term rentals of homes and condominiums which was been extended to April 30.

Okaloosa County has 14,000 lodging units, of those 3,000 are traditional units, which include hotels, inns and resorts and do no not fall under the executive order. County Administrator Chris Coffey said the limited hours could still detract tourists from planning visits. 

“Whether we like it or not, people are staying in our community,” he said. “There’s not going to be a point in time where we’re 100% clear of visitors.” 

According to the Florida Department of Health, the state has 27,495 cases and 839 deaths. In Okaloosa County, there has been 134 cases and three deaths. Considering the amount of hospital beds available and only seven current hospitalizations, the county is “nowhere near critical mass,” said Public Safety Director Patrick Maddox.

In working to reopen beaches, Coffey said he’s had conversations with other county officials to create a more cohesive message around the panhandle. Santa Rosa County Commissioners on Thursday plan to discuss reopening Navarre Beach, and Escambia County and city of Destin each will meet next week. Walton County has not expressed interest in reopening beaches, said Coffey. 

Residents at the meeting were not entirely satisfied with the commissioners’ decision. They made their opinions known when public comments opened up again. 

“If I’m going to get COVID-19, I can get it just as well on the sidewalk as in the sand,” said Cynthia Kellough.