Escambia: Back to the Beach on Friday
To open or not to open? That was the question before the Escambia County Commission, in regard to beaches and COVID-19. The decision was hammered out in special session on Tuesday.
“If there’s no more discussion about this I call for a vote about the beach; item passes 5-0,” said Chairman Steven Barry. The vote was taken after Commissioner Robert Bender read the motion to open Pensacola Beach and Perdido Key on Friday, May 1.
“That the beaches then reopen from 30 minutes before sunrise to 30 minutes after sunset,” said Bender. “That the area around the pier is closed as the lifeguards deem necessary. The pavilions are closed, and then we’ll work with the administrator to set up the public facilities.”
Social distancing is also ordered -- no more than 10 people per group, with the groups at least 6-feet from each other.
The decision to re-open was made after more than two hours of debate. Fifteen hundred pages of written comments were submitted to the commission, and about two dozen showed up at the meeting to give their views in person. All of the speakers were in favor of reopening, with some of them acrimonious.
“This country is based on freedom; based on our bill of rights. We have the right to assemble.”
“Why are you being [complicit] with something that’s hurting your community?”
“That’s not ya’ll’s job to protect us.”
“And I’m not in control of what I’m saying today because I’m mad – pissed.”
The beaches were closed on March 20, as the coronavirus outbreak was spreading. As of Tuesday morning, Escambia County saw an increase of 15 new coronavirus cases overnight, bringing the total to 485. Eleven residents in Escambia have died from the virus.
“When you look at the positivity curve, it’s somewhere between 4 to 7%, depending on the testing that was done and the results come back,” said Dr. John Lanza, Director of the Florida Department of Health in Escambia County, told the commission that a downward trend in COVID cases in the county began about two weeks ago.
“It was flattening and starting to turn into a negative curve,” said Lanza. “You kind of have to draw between the spikes on the two ED graphs. But if you look about going back two weeks you can start seeing a negative curve.”
However, the trend doesn’t appear to be reaching area nursing homes and long-term care centers, which have seen the virus tear through their facilities. Lanza says those investigations are separate.
“And that’s why we have gone into the nursing homes,” Lanza said. “Sacred Heart has specifically done that, the National Guard started on Monday doing that just to see what the incidences of the diseases in the nursing home. It’s not the individuals in the nursing home as much as the health care workers that come in and out of the nursing home.”
“You made the right decision on Marth 20; it was a difficult decision but the right decision, as you’ve all stated the medical community told you that,” said Escambia County Sheriff David Morgan. “And I think the swift and effective action that you took on that day has gotten us to where we are today.”
Morgan, whose agency is charged with enforcing the new ordinance, urged the commission not to make any “dumb decisions” – translation: rules that are not enforceable. Case in point, CDC requirements on social distancing.
“We all know about hygiene now; hand-washing, the hand sanitizers – we know about social distancing. We know about wearing a mask if that’s something that makes us feel comfortable,” Morgan said. “There’s a time where, in governance, that we step back and say, ‘We’ve given you all the tools to complete that.’ And now it’s incumbent on you to follow all those directions. And I think that’s where we are.”
As with the beaches, Morgan also favors opening businesses in some form or fashion. The commission did scrap a proposal to place restrictions on activities, after questions about how they would be enforced.
“Does anyone on this county commission want the sheriff of Escambia County to make arrests on the beach because I have a family that won’t separate?” Morgan asked the panel. “Do you really want me to go to a business that allows someone to step inside and make their order, as opposed to standing outside to make their order? And the answer’s no – that’s not who we are.”
The county will monitor compliance – or non-compliance – of the new ordinance, and will l revisit the issue at its regular meeting on May 7.