Florida continues reopening beaches, with social distancing

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — Beaches in Flagler County on Florida’s east coast reopened for limited recreation Wednesday and those in Sarasota on the west coast will follow suit next week as municipalities throughout the Sunshine State start allowing residents to swim, fish, walk and jog on the sand.

However, distancing guidelines — including staying six feet apart — remain in effect.

Most communities are keeping beach opening times to a few hours in mornings and evenings and are barring any lounging on chairs and towels with coolers. Officials want to prevent social gatherings with shared food and drink that could spread COVID-19, while promoting healthful recreation.

“Unless you’ve been living in a cave, you know what to do to protect yourself,” Sarasota County Commissioner Michael Moran said. “Now that everyone is educated on (health guidelines), now it’s time to open up our lives.”

Gov. Ron DeSantis on March 17 ordered that beaches statewide be limited to gatherings of no more than 10 people and spaced at least six feet apart. On April 2, he barred public gatherings and nonessential activities outside the home in general, but exempted recreational activities such as walking, jogging, fishing and swimming as long as they abide by distancing rules.

Most municipalities simply closed their beaches rather than police them for distancing violations. However, some have been reopening — with the governor’s encouragement — including in the Daytona area earlier this month and in Jacksonville area last Friday.

The Jacksonville reopening brought hordes of eager beachgoers back, mostly walking and jogging. Residents by themselves, in pairs or families appeared to abide by guidelines to remain six feet apart, but images of the sheer number of folks doing so drew widespread attention in national media — with many critics objecting to any activity on the beaches.

DeSantis has said it’s important for people to have outlets for exercising, getting sunshine and fresh air. “Do it in a good way. Do it in a safe way,” he said last Friday.

Two counties in Florida’s Panhandle — Okaloosa and Bay — voted Tuesday to reopen the beaches for recreational activities. Lawmakers in Escambia and Santa Rosa counties are deciding whether to follow suit, the Pensacola News Journal reported.

Santa Rosa County Sam Parker said last week that he’s asking commissioners to consider allowing residents to use Navarre Beach for walking, jogging, biking, fishing, surfing and swimming, the newspaper reported.

In Panama City, commissioners agreed Tuesday to partially reopen the county’s beaches and officials in Panama City Beach are expected to consider a similar proposal on Thursday, according to news outlets.

“The folks that want to set up their tent and have a keg party is not appropriate, we won’t tolerate it,” said Philip Griffitts, chairman of the commission. “Bay County is full of great folks and I personally believe our folks will pay very close attention to the rules and not put people in position to cause a problem.”

Okaloosa County officials said their beaches will reopen on May 1, from 6:30 a.m. to 9 a.m. and from 4:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. All beach activities will be permitted but officials said they could readdress the issue if they see a spike in COVID-19 cases.

Along Florida’s Gulf Coast, officials in Pinellas County have closed their beaches through May 1. This includes Clearwater Beach, which shut down after reports of massive spring break crowds congregating on the sand in mid-March.

High-profile beaches in South Florida were among the first to close altogether, and they remain closed throughout the counties of Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach — which have the vast majority of Florida’s cases of COVID-19. Most other areas of the state have seen significantly lower rates of infection.

Officials in South Florida say reopenings should happen in phases, beginning with limited openings of parks, marinas, and golf courses so people can get fresh air and exercise. There have been no dates set. States and localities across the South and the nation are facing similar decisions on when to ease similar and other restrictions.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms that usually clear up within weeks. For some, it can cause severe illness and be life-threatening.

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Follow AP coverage of the virus outbreak at https://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak.

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News Talk Florida Staff