Boca Raton, Deerfield Beach, Fort Lauderdale, Lauderdale-by-the-Sea, Pompano Beach, Naples, Dania Beach, Hallandale Beach, Hollywood, Miami Beach, Lee County. They’ve all closed their beaches in response to the coronavirus. Clearwater is thinking about it. The Pinellas County Sheriff will consider closing beaches there if hotels don’t self-police their beach areas in line with the state-ordered social distancing requirements.
Places like Satellite Beach are patrolling beaches to enforce the rule, putting police in the role of chaperones at middle school dances. Brevard banned all beachside public parking. Volusia is closing some beach access points, though not beaches themselves. Inevitably, spring break revelers and others will migrate to counties and cities where beaches are still open. That includes Flagler Beach and Flagler County’s beaches.
The calculus for those places is between giving businesses and the public a lifeline as opposed to imposing still more restrictions.
There’s a fair argument for letting people and their beaches be. No one is going to catch or spread the virus by walking on the beach, taking a swim, sunbathing. But for most, the beach is not a solitary activity. It’s a magnet for interaction on and off the beach, the businesses lining the beach serving as funnels of people and mixers of their social habits. Our own barrier island is turning into the coronavirus’s Ellis Island: a dreamland of an entry point from where to spread.
There are many, many more arguments for closing the beaches.
With something like coronavirus, a virus without a cure, without a vaccine, with a ridiculously promiscuous transmission rate and a fatality rate that could be 10 times as high as the seasonal flu (at least according to Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases), and a rapidly mounting death toll to prove it, there doesn’t seem to be much room to err on the side of calm.
Alarm is not panic, and alarm is what we need, not beaches as usual, as we’ve had.
We’ve been seeing and hearing a lot of these revelers sound like selfish brats looking for their next drunker slosh. But before you go blaming those millennials, there is an irreconcilable contradiction at the heart of pronouncements by public health officials in Florida and in Flagler that enables the indifference. Officials tell us there is no confirmed case of coronavirus, but we should act as if there is. Chances are, there are a lot of cases, not a few, and we’ll know more about those as testing ramps up, which means there’s really no difference between Broward’s high number of cases and Flagler’s absence of cases. They tell us that the way to keep the virus from spreading is to limit interactions and adhere to state guidelines. If that’s the case, and if we must act as if it is around us, then we are not at all doing all that’s credibly possible to limit crowds. And we’re certainly not reducing the chances that these crowds will call on first responders for help with other issues, multiplying the chances that responders will get infected and sidelined when fire departments and law enforcement agencies can’t afford quarantines.
Though it’s entirely in their power, local officials are not taking any steps beyond those recommended by the governor. With short-sighted deference to businesses instead of a longer view on public health, they’re not recommending to Flagler Beach to close its beach, even though we see daily evidence of substantial gatherings–not like in South Florida or on the Gulf Coast, but enough that the beach has been a magnet of social activity that spills into businesses along A1A and further in. Flagler Beach City Commissioner Eric Cooley has been fielding that business through his 7-Eleven on the beach. He faces a dilemma. Business has been great. But he’s been “appalled,” in his word, by the absence of hygiene he sees in the majority of people who come in, most of them younger.
The younger crowd may be reveling like there’s no tomorrow because of the assumption that the coronavirus is more potent in older people, among whom the death rate can exceed 10 percent. But that’s also a fallacy, as we now know: 40 percent of those being hospitalized in the United States are between 20 and 54 years old. To calibrate the response to the virus by age brackets is as absurd as calibrating the response according to where confirmed cases are. Neither approach matches the equal-opportunity virulence of coronavirus, or epidemiologists’ projections. (If the virus were to infect 30 percent of the population and it has a fatality rate of 0.5 percent, 480,000 people would die in the United States over the next year, placing the death toll only below that for all cancers and heart disease.)
If local officials are lacking the courage so far to do what they must, the state is being irresponsible by allowing a patchwork of regulations across the state. Gov. Ron DeSantis is wrong when he says that the virus will affect different localities differently, as if the large number of cases in Broward somehow excuses a different approach in Flagler because there are supposedly no cases here. The state Board of Education isn’t taking that approach, closing all schools and universities. The court system and local governments aren’t taking that approach, cancelling trials, hearings and meetings and closing community centers. Leaving beaches open is a glaring contradiction.
This morning the Flagler Beach City Commission was to hold an emergency meeting to declare a state of emergency. It was going to keep the public outside its chambers, walking in those who wish to address the commission one by one, while the rest watch or listen outside. It’s taking those necessary precautions while a few hundred feet down from the chamber, people are ambling around by the hundreds and thousands as the day wears on.
They’re wanting it both ways. They’re sending contradictory messages and enabling irresponsibility. They’re issuing visas to the virus. Do the prudent thing already, late as it is: close the damn beach.