Okaloosa Commissioners: Food At The Beach Is Not For The Birds

Nov 17, 2020

A Great Blue Heron perches at the Okaloosa Island Fishing Pier.
Credit Creative Commons

Okaloosa’s Board of County Commissioners had their first meeting with newly sworn-in members Paul Mixon and Mel Ponder. One of the big issues on Tuesday morning’s agenda was the proposed ordinance about feeding birds at public beaches, which passed 4-1.

The issue came to the board about two weeks ago when restaurant owners on Okaloosa Island complained that birds had become a “huge distraction” for customers. 

“Birds have been fed at the boardwalk for a number of years and have become tamed,” said John Perry, general manager of Rockin Tacos at The Boardwalk, at the meeting. 

“This needs to stop, it’s a public health issue,” added resident Dave Hancock after providing a list of human diseases linked to bird droppings. 

The language of the original ordinance was written broadly, prohibiting feeding non-domesticated wildlife, including feral cats, at all county beaches and parks. 

Directors from Panhandle Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) which has the animal control contract for Okaloosa, and the nonprofit Save Our Cats and Kittens spoke of the broad language saying the ordinance as written would conflict with the TNR (trap, neuter and release) programs that are in place with the county. 

PAWS Executive Director Tracey Williams also pointed out the organization was not notified about the ordinance, which Commissioner Nathan Boyles admitted the county did “a lousy job” by discussing the ordinance with PAWS. 

After the discussion, the board narrowed the language of the ordinance to only prohibit feeding birds in beaches and waterfront parks in the south end of the county. Violators will be given a verbal warning on first offense and fined $100 and $250 on second and third offenses respectively. 

But it’s another airborne issue that at least one Okaloosa County resident is most concerned about: COVID cases. Okaloosa County has been on a steady incline for the past five weeks with a 14% positivity rate. The goal is to stay under 5%, according to the World Health Organization.

“I saw on WEAR that the commissioners were going to be discussing this ordinance and I thought ‘Birds? That’s the No. 1 problem right now?’” said Taylor Kennedy on the phone after the meeting. 

Taylor Kennedy placed 139 feathers at the Okaloosa County office in Shalimar to represent the COVID deaths in the county.
Credit Taylor Kennedy/Courtesy Photo

Kennedy has been to a number of county commission meetings asking for more to be done to mitigate COVID spread. Monday evening, she placed 139 feathers outside the county office representing COVID deaths in Okaloosa. 

Dr. Karen Chapman of Florida Department of Health Okaloosa County sends a weekly report about COVID-19. In the latest report, it says there’s also been a “dramatic rise” in hospitalizations in the county from an average of 16 COVID-19 patients to 43 in the past seven weeks. The report also strongly emphasized the use of masks to reduce spread, something the board was unwilling to pass last summer. Kennedy brought copies of the latest report to each of the commissioners. 

“There’s people’s lives being taken. If something isn’t done before Thanksgiving, I don’t think it’s going to matter,” Kennedy said to the board. “We didn’t succeed in flattening the curve. It’s been eight months and we haven’t figured it out yet?”

Commissioner Carolyn Ketchel, the only commissioner wearing a mask at the meeting, said she appreciated Kennedy’s advocacy. Ketchel brought the issue of a mask mandate to the board in July, but it didn’t pass. Another member would have to bring it up for a vote. 

“It’s worse than a slap in the face to our health care workers,” she said. “I’m heartbroken we couldn’t do more.”