Twenty seven miles of public beaches will be closed in Okaloosa County in a drastic move to avoid further spread of COVID-19, effective Saturday March 21, through April 30.
It’s a move Okaloosa County Commissioners did not take lightly as they debated and took public comment for nearly three hours during an emergency meeting. Dr. Karen Chapman of the Florida Department of Health in Okaloosa County made a passionate case for limiting the amount of visitors coming to the area as tourist season begins to ramp up.
“I’m calling on you to treat this as — maybe we should call this not a Category 5-plus, maybe we should call this a Category 10,” she said. “But it’s not coming from the ocean, it’s coming to us right now from all of our neighbors.”
As more testing becomes available, the number of positive COVID-19 cases continues to rise nationwide and statewide. As of Thursday afternoon, data shows 360 positive Florida cases.
“It’s moving so fast it’s impossible to get access to the data we need,” said Chapman. “And there’s much we don’t know about this virus.”
It’s not just the senior citizens who are at risk, she added noting that adults 20 to 54 years old make up 40% of hospitalized COVID-19 patients.
Chapman said lessening the number of visitors coming to the area — which come from highly populated areas such as Atlanta, Birmingham and New Orleans — would help mitigate the chance of the virus spreading.
But closed beaches comes with financial consequences. A handful of business owners were present at the meeting hoping to persuade the board not to fully closing the beaches.
Ted Ent, President and CEO of Innisfree Hotels said his staff has implemented sanitation measures in January and exercising measures to keep guests at safe distances, like spacing beach chairs six feet apart. At this point, he’s not worried about making a profit in 2020, he said.
“Our goal is to keep our people employed,” he said. “I hope you take another option than full closure.”
City of Destin Mayor Gary Jarvis expressed that closing the beaches would be an overstep of the government.
“Encourage personal responsibility, but not by abdicating it to the government,” he said.
Okaloosa County’s ordinances does include one Okaloosa County public beach in Destin. Most of the city’s beaches are private. Destin City Council will have its own emergency meeting Friday morning at 8 a.m. which you can watch on the city's YouTube page.
Okaloosa County beaches close, effective end of day Friday, March 20. This decision was not taken lightly. Public health is of the utmost importance. Visit https://t.co/nhUfwIiQeL for full details of the Okaloosa County COVID-19 Response. #COVID19 #okaloosa #coronavirus pic.twitter.com/8svrdfznRv
— Okaloosa County (@OkaloosaCounty) March 19, 2020
Okaloosa Commissioner Graham Fountain grappled with the decision to close beaches saying he felt like he was “sitting on a murder jury and it’s a death sentence” worrying about the livelihood of service industry workers. Eventually, he said he wanted to err on the side of caution.
The ordinance does not just reflect public beaches, but includes public beach accessways, parking areas solely for accessing public beaches and county beachfront parks. Additionally, the ordinance was amended to add that the Okaloosa County Fishing Pier would be open only for fishing.
In South Florida, where COVID-19 cases are more prevalent, officials have implemented closures and curfews on public beaches. And at the same time of Okaloosa County’s meeting, Walton County Commissioners voted unanimously to close public beaches effectively for 30 days. Later Thursday, Escambia and Santa Rosa Counties announced they would keep beaches open while still adhering to state and federal guidelines.
"I think you have to look at the differences between the counties," said Escambia County Commissioner Robert Bender. "That's why the governor (DeSantis) has left some of the decisions up to the local government to decide. We have a good tourism industry here. I'd say it's really great, but it's still 25% less than Okaloosa has."
Implementing the closure was not easy as commissioners had to weigh-in on what beaches could be closed. Private beaches, state parks and federal land do not fall under the closure. Commissioners decided not to implement a “locals only” rule or curfew because it would be too difficult to enforce.
“This is probably the toughest decision I’ve had to make,” said Commissioner Carolyn Ketchel. “These are my friends and neighbors, but if I’ve got a bed in a hospital, I want to save that for our local citizens."