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DeFUNIAK SPRINGS — The 26 miles of public and private beaches in Walton County will open on May 1 with no time restrictions, following a unanimous Tuesday decision by the Walton County Board of County Commissioners.
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Commissioners closed the beaches on March 19 under a local state of emergency declared three days earlier to give the county additional means of addressing the new coronavirus, the spreading cause of a serious respiratory illness now sweeping the country.
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With the commission’s Tuesday vote, beaches will reopen at 12:01 a.m. May 1. There will be no restrictions on hours of use, but activities will be limited to walking, jogging, fishing, swimming, paddleboarding, surfing and boating.
But not allowed, at some consternation among people who attended the meeting either in person or via interactive Zoom videoconferencing, is sunbathing.
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However, exactly what constitutes sunbathing was left unclear at the commission’s Tuesday meeting, given that people will be allowed to take chairs to the beach.
Pressed for a definition of sunbathing by one Zoom caller, Commission Chairman Bill Chapman responded, “Heck, I don’t know, lady ... A blanket on the beach, that’s sunbathing.”
Further pressed, Chapman told the caller to “call legal (the county attorney’s office) and they’ll tell you about it.”
Beach-goers will be expected to follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines with regard to COVID-19, the spreading virus. That means maintaining six feet of separation, and not gathering in groups of more than 10 people.
Violations of the terms of the beach reopening are a second-degree misdemeanor, punishable by up to 60 days in jail and a fine of up to $500.
In addition to bringing chairs to the beach, beach-goers will be allowed to bring umbrellas and tents, but must use them under the terms of the county’s beach activities ordinance. No vending — of beach chairs, umbrellas and other goods and services, including beach bonfires — will be allowed on the beaches when they reopen.
Walton County Sheriff Michael Adkinson, whose deputies, along with other county employees, will be responsible for enforcing those restrictions, said Tuesday that a reasonable approach will be taken to enforcement, so that groups that clearly are families will be given some leeway, although they might be approached by deputies verifying their status as family.
“Please don’t take it the wrong way if they do ask you,” Adkinson said at Tuesday’s commission meeting. “That doesn’t mean you have to move — we’re not going to separate families.”
Because Tuesday’s decision is part of the county’s state of emergency declaration, which under state law cannot remain in place for more than seven days without renewal, commissioners on Tuesday gave Chapman the authority to renew the declaration through at least April 12, when the commission will review the beach reopening at its regularly scheduled meeting.
Additionally, commissioners could hold an emergency meeting at any time to consider changes in the beach reopening measure.
Circumstances that might trigger review, according to Chapman, include a spike or other increase in the number of COVID-19 cases in the county.
As of Tuesday, there have been 35 confirmed positive COVID-19 cases in Walton County, 27 involving residents and eight involving non-residents. No COVID-19 deaths had been reported in the county as of Tuesday afternoon.
It was, in fact, that relatively low number of COVID-19 cases — neighboring Bay County has recorded 70 cases, and neighboring Okaloosa County has recorded 152 cases — that formed part of the reason for the commission’s decision to reopen the beaches.
Bay County’s beaches have been open for limited hours since April 24, and Okaloosa County’s beaches will open for limited hours on May 1, and beginning May 9, will be open from sunrise to sunset.
But even as Walton County commissioners were moving toward their Tuesday vote, they were cautioned by Holly Holt, administrator of the Florida Department of Health in Walton County, that it is “still very, very, very important that we continue what we’ve learned over the last few months” in terms of employing social distancing and other strategies to limit the spread of COVID-19.
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The commission’s action came before Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has indicated whether his executive order banning short-term vacation rentals, currently set to expire on Thursday, will be extended. Originally signed in March, the order has already been extended once.
Throughout the commission’s days of weighing whether to reopen the beaches, Sheriff Adkinson has expressed some concern about the number of people who will come to the county if beaches were reopened and vacation rentals were allowed. It was something of a concession to the sheriff’s concerns that commissioners opted to open the beaches with no time restrictions, to eliminate the potential for large numbers of people to come together for limited hours at the beach, which had been a particular concern for the sheriff.
But even as they reopened the county’s beaches, commissioners also looked Tuesday at letting potential visitors know that other COVID-19-related circumstances — restaurants either closed or offering only to-go options, grocery stores having difficulty keeping toilet paper and other items in stock — mean that a beach vacation this year is going to be different from previous beach vacations.
“This is not a normal vacation, not a normal summer,” said Commissioner Melanie Nipper.
In connection with that, various county entities will be taking to social media and other digital platforms to let potential vacationers, as well as local vacation rental companies, know how they should prepare for a beach vacation this year. Included in that messaging will be suggesting that visitors bring their own food and other supplies.
That messaging was slated to begin going out Tuesday.