Destin beaches will also be open May 1.
City Council members deliberated the issue Wednesday night for more than two hours before voting unanimously to open beaches from dawn to dusk. Beachgoers are to practice social distancing and keep groups to 10 people or fewer.
Across the Panhandle, county commissions and city councils have had similar discussions. Each have their own hours of operation and restrictions, which the council considered.
“It makes my head hurt reading it,” said Councilmember Chatham Morgan.
The council discussed following the approach of Okaloosa County, which is opening beaches from 6:30-9:30 a.m. and 4-7:30 p.m. Friday before fully reopening May 9. But, with limited public access points, Morgan expressed concerns that limited hours may “bottleneck” the public beaches in city limits.
“When the short-term rental is lifted, those 50-foot (accesses) are going to be impossible to socially distance,” he said.
Karen Chapman of the Florida Department of Health in Okaloosa County said the county’s number of cases has remained low thanks to early intervention and extensive contact tracing. She said she still has concerns for the vulnerable population as visitors return. As for the beach, she reminded people that the outdoors doesn’t mean immunity from the virus.
“There’s no protection in close gatherings just because you’re outside,” she said.
The City Council closed beaches last month to reduce the spread of coronavirus. Their meeting Wednesday started just a few hours after Gov. Ron DeSantis announced the state’s reopening plan, which begins Monday.
As peak tourism season begins, there was also concern of tourists not only filling the beaches, but clearing grocery stores of essential items. The governor’s short-term rental ban has been extended indefinitly starting May 4..
“I’m concerned of that ‘I’m on vacation’ mentality,” said resident Marcie Bell. “They wiped us out of supplies (last month) and took it home with them.”
One Missouri visitor called into the meeting with concerns about her May 16 trip. She’ll be staying at a condo in Destin with four other guests and didn’t want to visit if beach hours were limited. Another Missouri visitor, a 68-year-old, sent a message to city staff asking if restaurants would be open since they didn’t plan to cook during their trip. As local and state governments are ironing out details, the city plans to reach out to visitors about what will and won’t be open.
Even after the beaches open, it will take some time for the city and the state to go back to normal. There will be a “slow reopening over the course of 12 to 14 days,” said Mayor Gary Jarvis, noting that restaurants in particular may need to rehire staff and restock inventory.
“I don’t think everyone’s going to be ready to be open by the fourth of May,” he said.