Commissioners took that action as a public health measure under a local state of emergency declared a few days ago in light of the spread of COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the coronavirus now widespread across the globe.
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DEFUNIAK SPRINGS — With a unanimous Thursday vote, Walton County commissioners closed the county’s beaches to the general public for 30 days, effective immediately, with the possibility of further extensions with additional commission votes.
Enforcement of the ordinance began immediately upon the commission vote, said Walton County Sheriff Michael Adkinson, even as deputies were being briefed on the ordinance and expectations for its enforcement.
"We are not dragging people off the beach in handcuffs," Adkinson said.
Instead, deputies and other partners, including the South Walton Fire District, county code enforcement personnel and the Tourist Development Council will begin by educating the public about the new ordinance, and then moving toward voluntary compliance.
"The implementation of this is a process," Adkinson said. "We’re gearing everybody up." Visitors and residents should expect to see concrete evidence of enforcement activities by 8 a.m. Friday, according to the sheriff.
Adkinson said that while voluntary compliance is the goal, his office is ready to fully enforce the ordinance, a violation of which is a misdemeanor, in the event of resistance.
"If it’s a question of wills, I’m going to win that," Adkinson said at a Thursday afternoon news conference.
Commissioners took the action as a public health measure under a local state of emergency declared a few days ago in light of the spread of COVID-19.
Walton County recorded its first positive test for coronavirus on Wednesday, and according to Adkinson, an additional 26 people are under investigation through the county health department as having the potential to test positive for COVID-19.
The emergency ordinance can be revisited at any time within the upcoming 30 days and adjusted, including the possibility of being rescinded. Commissioners could take a new look at the emergency ordinance as soon as their upcoming Tuesday meeting.
For purposes of the emergency ordinance, the county has direct control of its three miles of beach, and it is likely to be given enforcement powers along the county’s additional three miles of state park beaches, according to Adkinson.
At least one private beach, serving the Seaside community, was closed in unrelated action addressing the coronavirus spread prior to Thursday’s commission decision. But other closures of private beaches along the county’s 26 miles of shoreline will depend largely on the owners of those properties.
Adkinson said Thursday he does have the unilateral power under state law to force compliance with the ordinance, and might consider using that power in connection with beach activities drawing large crowds.
In the meantime, the sheriff said, vacation rental property owners should be putting out the word that, in effect, all of the county’s beaches, public and private, are closed.
At Thursday morning’s commission meeting, Walton County Commission Chairman Bill Chapman said the county is "doing this action based on the safety and the welfare of the people of this county, residents and visitors alike."
The emergency ordinance was drafted after the Wednesday afternoon meeting, based on direction from the commission.
While the county clearly has control over its own beaches, and is expected to get control over the state park beaches, things got a little trickier with controlling privately owned beachfront property.
"We don’t really have the authority to do that," Walton County Attorney Sidney Noyes told commissioners. But, Noyes added, "If a beachfront property owner invites crowds onto their property, that’s something they’re going to have to be responsible for."
Noyes went on to make something of a plea to private beachfront property owners.
"We’re taking all the steps we possibly can to protect the public, and we just ask that everybody else do the same," she said.
"So much of this is going to be on the private beach owners," the sheriff added in an interview following the commission meeting, suggesting that ongoing closing of some private beaches could create pressure for other private beaches to close.
On the other side of the issue, enactment of the emergency ordinance has left a number of rental property owners concerned about what their future holds.
"I have a small family of four coming in Saturday," one of them told commissioners. "I don’t know what I’m supposed to tell them."