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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

Navarre Beach To Reopen For Afternoons Starting May 1

Jennie McKeon
WUWF Public Media

Starting May 1, people will be able to enjoy Navarre Beach from 2:30-7:30 p.m.

Santa Rosa County Commissioners voted Thursday to reopen the beach in a limited capacity. Additionally, commissioners voted to reopen the Navarre Beach Fishing Pier to annual passholders, including those whose passes have expired in the last three months. 

“None of this is something we normally deal with and we’re not going to be able to accommodate everyone and make everyone happy,” said Commissioner Lane Lynchard before the unanimous vote. 

Thursday’s decision comes after Okaloosa County voted this week to reopen beaches from 6:30-9:30 a.m. and 3:30-7:30 p.m. Escambia County and the City of Destin will discuss similar measures at their meetings next week. 

The Santa Rosa County Sheriff’s Office has been enforcing the beach closure with a checkpoint at Gulf Boulevard. That checkpoint will stay in place and parking will be limited to the lot at the marine park and the lot to the east. 

Since the closure, Sheriff Bob Johnson said there hasn’t been one arrest made and people have been “very cordial” despite their disappointment. Johnson also made the suggestion to reopen the beach in one block of time to reduce a strain on law enforcement.

The cumulative number of COVID-19 cases in Santa Rosa County was 131 on Thursday afternoon, according to the Florida Department of Health dashboard. There are two people currently hospitalized. Public Safety Director Brad Baker said he believed the county has reached its peak of cases, although a spike could reoccur. 

Looking at the guidelines set for President Donald Trump’s Opening Up America Again plan, County Administrator Dan Schebler said Santa Rosa is “between phase 0 and phase 1” of reopening. The state of Florida has also initiated a task force on reopening the state, but no details have been released. 

“We’re still going to encourage tele-work, we’re still going to encourage social distancing,” he said. “We’re entering a new phase but we should still go about business as we have.” 

While state and federal orders have closed businesses and recreational facilities, the one decision the county can make is about the beach. Most public comments were in favor of completely reopening the beach, but Commissioner Lane Lynchard said the board wants to take a “prudent approach.” 

The decision was made with support from health-care providers. In a joint letter addressed to the board and dated April 21, local hospital CEOs said they support the “gradual easing of some restrictions, including the opening of beaches” with social distancing measures in place. 

The board voted to close Navarre Beach last month to reduce spread of COVID-19 and detract spring break visitors. Schebler said they still want to limit drawing people to the area.

“Limiting the time in scope, we can limit people coming from outside the Panhandle,” he said. “People may not be willing to drive from Knoxville, Tennessee, to come to the beach for five hours, for instance.”

Some residents argued the beach closure was a violation of their First Amendment rights and that it should be up to individuals if they want to risk exposure to COVID-19.

“If you’re against reopening the beaches, stay home,” said Milton resident James Calkins, who is running for District 3 Commissioner. 

Before the beach closure, one Navarre Beach resident said she saw “spring breakers shoulder to shoulder” on the beach. 

“The only thing that will stop this virus is for people to stay home,” she said before thanking the commissioners for closing the beaches.

Commissioners will be assessing beach measures every two weeks until beaches are open completely. 

“The reason we don’t have a lot of deaths (in the county) is because we’re doing what we’re supposed to do,” said Commissioner Bob Cole via teleconference. “We’ll try this for two weeks and if that’s going good, we’ll open the valve up a little bit at a time.”

Jennie joined WUWF in 2018 as digital content producer and reporter.