Walton County Commissioners voted Thursday afternoon to amend their emergency ordinance to close all Walton County beaches — including private ones.
On March 19, Commissioners closed beaches to the public to discourage tourists and reduce the spread of the coronavirus. Since then, the number of tourists has declined, but there are still a number of out-of-state owners who have come to South Walton to quarantine in their second homes, according to TDC Executive Director Jay Tusa.
Walton County Sheriff Michael Adkinson said there has been “quite a bit of consternation” from second-home owners who are coming from states with shelter-in-place orders to quarantine in South Walton.
“We are very concerned,” he said. “We’re getting universal compliance from the public across the board. But we have people being very vocal and saying ‘I own this piece of property and I can invite people down.’ Your personal liberty, your property rights, stops at the point it infringes on the safety of others.”
“You’re literally talking about thousands of people who are coming from states that have shelter-in-place orders,” Adkinson added. “They’re coming to sit at the beach, they’re not coming to sit and look at four walls.”
While numbers are fluid, Walton County currently has 19 COVID-19 cases, and a majority of them are in South Walton. When commissioners closed the beaches on March 19, there was only one reported case.
Chairman Bill Chapman said the county had been looking to have a “soft-touch” approach when it comes to compliance.
“But sometimes, you got to use a hammer.”
The meeting took less than 30 minutes with just a few public comments from beachfront owners who said closing private beaches violated their property rights. One owner, Ron Hart, said the amendment was a “fundamental Trojan horse for customary use.”
“One-third of the people in this county have been laid off probably. Everyone’s having to sacrifice,” said Commissioner Danny Glidewell. “This is a sacrifice that’s in the best interests of the people of Walton County … and I don’t care who doesn’t like it.”
Walton County attorney Daniel Uhlfelder, who is suing Gov. Ron DeSantis for not closing all of Florida’s beaches, said the commissioners meeting would have been unnecessary with a statewide order.
“We shouldn’t have to call an emergency meeting for this,” he said. “(The governor) is endangering residents by not properly shutting down the state. People are still coming here. It’s a good move from commissioners to eliminate any uncertainty.”
The governor’s attorneys have made a motion to dismiss the lawsuit filed by Uhlfelder and Gaultier Kitchen and called the argument that the governor was obligated by law to close beaches statewide was a “baseless assertion.”
But Uhlfelder isn’t backing down. He’ll be phoning in to a hearing Tuesday afternoon.
“People come to Florida for Disney World and the beaches,” he said. “Disney is closed; the beaches need to be closed.”