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'I'm A Beach Addict': People Flock To The Sand As Beaches Reopen

The first thing Jane Mihanovich did when she arrived at Okaloosa Island Friday morning was stick her feet in the emerald water. 

“I came here to see and to touch the ocean,” said the native Croatian who moved to Fort Walton Beach in 2007. “When I got in, it felt incredible … indescribable.” 

With local beaches closed for over a month to reduce spread of coronavirus and detract tourists, Mihanovich said she was “close to going insane.” Not long after taking those first steps, an Okaloosa County deputy drove by to politely say the beaches were closed for the morning. They would reopen at 4:30 p.m. 

But just a few miles east, Destin beaches were open from dawn to dusk. And that’s where Mihanovich and her husband headed. 

“I’m an ocean girl, it’s an addiction,” she said. 

Credit Jennie McKeon, WUWF Public Media
An Okaloosa County Sheriff's Office deputy advises Jane Mihanovich and her husband on the beach hours at Okaloosa Island.

From Bay to Escambia counties, beaches reopened Friday morning, but not all at the same time. Okaloosa and Santa Rosa counties, for example, opted for limited blocks of time to reduce crowds. Michele Nicholson, spokeswoman for the Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office said there was some confusion over guidelines, but people overall were “very cooperative.” 

Mornings were quiet for the most part. On Pensacola Beach, where beaches open 30 minutes before sunrise, Amanda Leach sat in a chair by the water’s edge. She arrived at beach at 5:30 a.m. anticipating a crowd, and because she couldn’t wait. 

“It’s been rough,” she said of the past month. “This is our favorite thing to do.” 

After 60 days of quarantine and binge-watching cartoons with his 4-year-old son Liam, Gregory Townsend was another Pensacola Beach early bird.

“I’m stoked to say the least. I don’t think we as a nation were ready to sit down for 60 days,” he said. “I’ve never binge-watched TV a day in my life (until now).”

By 8 a.m., it was still pretty quiet with temps in the 60s. Sgt. Patrick Roberts of Escambia County Sheriff’s Office said deputies are not trying to issue fines or citations, but they are monitoring beaches. 

“Come out, enjoy yourself, just remember social distancing guidelines.” 

Social distancing is easier with smaller crowds and wide swaths of beach. In Destin, where public beaches are limited and small; it’s harder to achieve, which is why the City Council voted to keep them open longer to prevent bottlenecking. At June White Decker Beach, the crowds were a little closer than larger beaches, but it didn’t deter people. 

“This is our home,” said Jake Robinson sitting with his wife, Paige, and kids. “Not being able to come here has been a big bump in the road. 

With six kids aged 9 months to 7 years old, a beach day was a big relief during the pandemic, said Paige.

“We want the kids to have some normalcy,” she said. “It’s been hard to explain to kids why they can’t come to the beach.” 

Credit Jennie McKeon, WUWF Public Media
Anglers line up for the Navarre Beach Fishing Pier opening.

On Navarre Beach, there was a line of people waiting to go to the beach or fishing pier as both are open from 2:30-7:30 p.m. 

At the end of the line of fishing rods and carts, John Segell said he’s been waiting for this day since the pier and beach closed. 

“(Quarantine) sucks pretty much,” he said. “My yard looks the best it’s had in years … but I’m excited to get out of the house. Even if I don’t catch fish today, it’s just great to get into the fresh air.”

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