Relying shockingly and partly on misinformation about saltwater and sunlight that has been debunked and cautioned against, and mostly on personal observations and pictures, the Flagler Beach City Commission in an emergency meeting this morning opted against closing its six miles of beach for now.
Commissioners and the police chief don’t see crowds sizeable enough to warrant closure. Commissioners are leaving the way open for the city manager, the police chief and the director of parks and recreation, through his lifeguards, to enforce “social distancing” rules or to possibly close the beach should neighboring communities do so and Flagler Beach’s sands become more crowded.
For now, if anything, commissioners are encouraging the use of the beaches, with this morning’s discussion at one point veering into patently false claims to justify open beaches.
“One of the best things you can do is be out in the sun,” Police Chief Matt Doughney said, arguing against closure. (Doughney later clarified to FlaglerLive that this was true as long as one follows social distancing and health department guidelines. He did not mean to say that the sun had an effect on the virus, he said.)
“And that virus doesn’t like salt water anyway,” City Commission Chairman Kim Carney said minutes later.
“That’s what we’re being told,” Tom Gillin, the city’s parks and recreation director, who oversees the lifeguard corps, said.
“It doesn’t like salt water,” Carney repeated.
Gillin continued along the same line, claiming there was a benefit to “warm temperatures and sunlight, so that might just encourage more people, the best place to be is the beach.”
“I get it. Err on the side of caution,” Carney said. “I get it. I do, I do.”
Doughney, Carney and Gillin are wrong about either sunshine or saltwater, and appear to be relying on the sort of misinformation spreading on social media. “There’s a lot of information circulating about Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID), so it’s important to know what’s true and what’s not,” Lisa Lockered Maragakis, a physician, wrote for the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine’s website. She addressed claims that salt water, “essential oils,” ethanol and other liquids would protect against the virus. “None of these recommendations protects you from getting COVID-19, and some of these practices may be dangerous,” Maragakis wrote.
In fact, on Tuesday, reports circulated widely of the Covid-19 infection of dozens of churchgoers in South Korea, who’d been sprayed with saltwater–using the same nozzle–in the false belief that they’d be protected.
Similarly, the assumption that sunshine is somehow beneficial is also flatly wrong. That claim drew some credibility from a bogus report attributed to UNICEF and circulated widely on social media. “There is no evidence that sun exposure kills the coronavirus,” Politifact reported last week. Rather, there is still much that is not known about the virus, including the lack of a vaccine.
City Commissioner Eric Cooley brought up the possibility of closing the beach, but got little support.
Our county government is asking us that we act as if it’s already in the community,” Cooley said. “Our town population is the representation of the at-risk community. If you look at the demographics, we are the at-risk community that this virus targets the most. The CDC is urging people to stay at home. And we are now in the growth phase of this virus, where it is doing the exponential growth, that has already happened.”
He spoke from his observations, as the owner of the high-traffic 7-Eleven store he owns on the beach: “I can tell you that not based on mentality but based on behavior and actions, that the folks that are out at the beach that I have observed and have been observing, don’t have a care in the world. That’s just fact, and that’s not based on their mindset. That’s based on their behavior.” He said he’s experienced an 85 percent increase in traffic, compared with last year.
Police Chief Matt Doughney doesn’t see a crowd issue. He cited the pictures he took from the pier in early afternoon Wednesday. He said the police is advertising CDC guidelines of social distancing. “As of right now I don’t foresee it to be a problem. I think if we close the beach right now, from the law enforcement standpoint, we’d have a bigger problem,” the chief said.
“That’s what I think,” Commissioner Jane Mealy said.
“Spring break is over Sunday,” Doughney said. “They’ll go home. The kids that are from Palm Coast, the kids that live in our community, will they continue to come to the beach? Absolutely. What we are encouraging is people spread out from Beverly Beach to the Volusia County line. We have six miles of beaches.
That’s a lot of room.” He acknowledged that young people may feel they are “bullet-proof,” but that residents do a good job of following directions. “If it’s a public safety issue I’ll be the first one to say close the beach. In my professional opinion it’s not a problem at this point. If it does become, I’ll be the first one to call the city manager and tell him we should close the beach.”
Gillin contradicted Doughney to the extent that spring break will mean the end of crowding at the beach. “Being that the schools will be off an extended amount of time, and they are encouraging people to go out there, we are expecting more beach attendance,” Gillin said. (To be sure, the school district is not encouraging people to go to the beach: Gillin was presumably referring to officials in his town, based on what they’d said at the meeting.) “So normally we would not have guards on next week, for example. But being that we expect people on the beach, we’ll have guards on the beach most likely up until the summer. I told the guards this pretty much begins our summer season of beach coverage.”
He added: “We’re expecting, especially if other events are being shut down that people are getting cabin fever and that might even encourage more people to come out and be on the beach. So we’re expecting beach attendance to be fairly substantial in the next few weeks.”
Commissioner Rick Belhumeur spoke of concerns about significant, stationary groups on the pier, especially among people fishing. Similar issues were raised about the boardwalk.
“Do the fish know about social distancing?” Mealy said, laughing.
“Depends if it’s high tide or low tide,” Carney says.
Mayor Linda Provencher restored a sense of seriousness about the discussion. “Walk that boardwalk, walk out on that pier. If people are clustered together, ask them to move,” Provencher said. She, too, was opposed to closing the beaches, noting that Beverly Beach and the county are keeping their sands open.
But she had a caveat. “This is a day to day thing,” Provencher continued. “If Daytona Beach closes, absolutely. That’s huge. Then they’re going to come up here. If we see that it’s just a mob mentality, then yes, we probably do need to close our beach. But from what I’ve seen the past few days, and I’ve been down on the beach, and not just down on the south end, it hasn’t been–I’ve seen it much worse over regular spring breaks. So I personally think at this time you should not close the beach, but it should be decided and monitored daily or hour by hour, and leave that up to Larry and the chief and the powers that be to make that decision if they feel it’s become a safety problem.”
City Manager Larry Newsom said he would exercise his judgment as part of the emergency declaration the city approved this morning. Newsom has reduced staffing at City Hall (the city library is closed), while Doughney said he and others would be working “seven days a week.” Newsom said overtime will not be an issue. “They need to do what they need to do, and overtime is not a factor,” he said. “I’ll monitor it.” He said the city’s reserves and bank account “is very lucrative.” He reiterated what he’d said earlier in the meeting, when he asserted that “I don’t see this financially being a big burden to the city at this point in time, that’s my crystal ball.”
“Right now where all of us, every jurisdiction is,” City Attorney Drew Smith said, “we are trusting our executives., trusting our chiefs, trusting our public safety crews to make those decisions. And again, as soon as there is the opportunity to get those in front of the policy makers, that’s what jurisdictions are doing. But I think we all have to recognize that those tops of our public safety chains may be called on to make a”–he snaps his fingers– “spur of the moment decision.”