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Local News

More Beaches Reopen As Season Picks Up

It’s been nearly two weeks since most local beaches have reopened. Safety officials say, for the most part, people are maintaining their distance and complying with new guidelines. 

“The numbers (of people) are picking up and that’s expected,” said Rich Huffnagle, beach safety division chief for Okaloosa County. “We’re at about 50% occupancy rate compared to what we normally see this time of year. It’s mostly locals.”

Okaloosa County reopened with limited hours before commissioners voted last week to lift all restrictions. Huffnagle said lifeguards are still working to reach out to all beach goers to educate them about beach safety rules as well as CDC guidelines. 

“Everybody knows them at this point,” he said in regards to the six-foot distance rule. 

And now, in a pandemic, lifeguards not only have to protect the public, but themselves. Huffnagle said protocols are in place for lifeguards to wear gloves and masks when making any contact with beach goers. 

Last week, Henderson Beach State Park and parts of Gulf Islands National Seashore reopened, as well as Eglin Air Force-owned beaches, including Eglin Beach Park, Princess Beach, Matterhorn and White Point in Okaloosa Island. 

Eglin did, however close the East Pass area beach in Destin due to increased activity. In a Facebook post, the Air Force base cited an “unsafe blend of beach goers and moving vessels along the shoreline” and lack of adequate parking control. 

Navarre Beach also lifted its time restrictions last week. Navarre Beach Fire Rescue Beach Safety Chief Austin Turnbull said the beach is “slammed.” Yet, besides some occasional crowding around the pier, people are social distancing well. 

“There’s plenty of room here so there’s no reason to crowd up,” he said. “We respectfully ask people to stay six feet apart, (lifeguards) are wearing masks at all times. We’re trying to stay upward, not downward.” 

NavarreBeachA7177.JPG
Credit Jennie McKeon/WUWF Public Media
This sign greets beachgoers as they head toward the water.

As local governments ease into normal operations, Walton County Commissioners voted to allow beach vendors back on the beach with the restriction that chairs and umbrellas be placed six feet apart. 

Stephanie Davis, owner of South Walton Beach Chair Guys, said before operations have changed like many other businesses. 

“The main thing is we’re sanitizing everything before and after they’re rented,” she said. 

With other states on lockdown, Davis said she believes there’s less of a demand from previous years. But it’s too soon to tell what the larger impact will be. 

Beach vendors and safety officials work closely together to educate locals and visitors of the rules, and that’s likely to continue, said South Walton Fire District Beach Director David Vaughan. 

As they brace themselves for visitors, Vaughan said lifeguards are always “selling safety” as they reach out to beach goers. And they have to communicate that from six feet away. 

“For the most part, people are generally maintaining distance,” he said. “There’s always pockets of resistance. It depends on how the person sees the gravity of the situation. We try to make them situationally aware — there’s always a moderate risk level when you go to the beach. Now, more than ever.”