Last Updated: 1:54 p.m.
Orders to stay off the beaches in Flagler Beach and Flagler County went in effect at dawn Monday morning as part of the coronavirus emergency. Since then, compliance in Flagler Beach has been near-total, but violators have been more frequent toward the north end of the county, where beach-side private property owners think, inaccurately, that the order doesn’t apply to them.
Pictures taken from the air by Flagler County Fire Flight, the county’s emergency helicopter, Wednesday afternoon show small, isolated, well-distanced clusters or individual beach-goers at the north end of the county, the sands also showing plenty of foot-tracks. One of the pictures shows an individual wading in shallow surf, others lounging on the sands.
“I’m being yelled at for closing them, I’m being yelled at for not closing them. I can’t win,” Flagler County Emergency Management Chief Jonathan Lord said this morning. “We really want people to follow the order as intended, but in general the FireFlight flight showed that in general the populace is adhering to our order. But you can see some exception.”
FireFlight went over the beaches between 4 and 5 p.m. Wednesday. The county’s emergency helicopter has been going up every day on recon missions because the county is increasingly concerned about the persistently dry conditions and the rising drought index, now approaching 400 on the 800-KBI scale. The higher the number, the dryer the grounds–and the more likely that wildfires will flare. “We are very concerned with the continuing drying of our entire county,” Lord said. The county is not eager to have to contend with that additional burden. Fire Flight is the surest way to ensure that isolated fires are caught early and put out, thus avoiding larger-scale emergencies. Along the way, it’s been flying over beaches to give county officials a more evidence-based glimpse of the effectiveness of no-go orders.
“We have 18 miles of beachfront and we have a deputy on patrol on an ATV, and he’s got 18 miles to cover,” Sheriff Rick Staly said this morning. “I’ve received some complaints from owners, residents who live on the beach that feel it’s a private property and we can’t tell them to stay off their backyard, as they put it. I explained to them the order does not differentiate between private property and public property. And of course the county attorney has defined that there is no delineation. So we are educating the public, but we can’t be everywhere the entire time. So we’re asking our residents and visitors to comply with the order from the county.”
There are no such things as private beaches in Flagler County, whether in front of private homes, vacation rental properties, hotels or big resorts. The sands above the mean high watermark are the property of the owner at that spot. But the county has long applied the principle of customary public use of that private property, and last year formalized that customary use in an ordinance. The March 22 order closing the beaches encompasses all the “dry sand beach” in the county.
“Yes, some individuals and associations own the beach real estate landward of the mean high water line, but that does not make the beach private so as to limit our emergency powers,” Hadeed said in an email on Tuesday. “It is true that the public cannot traverse across privately owned dunes to reach the beach (regardless of whether there is an emergency or not). Such owners, however, are still subject to the emergency power of the government during times of declared emergency, just as with the public that desires to exercise their customary use rights to the beach.”
Still, what violations of the order have taken place have been few. Sheriff’s deputies are addressing them through education first.
“Now we do have the right to technically arrest, which is a second-degree misdemeanor,” Staly said. “What I’ve indicated to my deputies is there’s a lot of anxiety in the community, and we want to educate. But if we have repeat offenders or people give you a hard time, we do have the authority to issue a notice to appear, which is the same thing as an arrest. So far we have not had to issue any. What would be nice is if everyone would comply with those requests so we can get back to normal sooner.”
Staly said the agency had received “a number of complaints” regarding Hammock Beach Resort. “My understanding is the Department of Health was on site and gave them some advice,” he said. The resort was the focus of controversy this week over the resort’s level of activity, with employees and Hammock Beach residents reporting copious gatherings that did not respect social distancing and the use of resort pools.
The aerial pictures, taken Wednesday–presumably after contact at Hammock Beach by the health department–include several taken above the resort. The pictures show no human activity, with the sands in front of the resort entirely deserted. Resort pools and pool decks are deserted. One of the resort’s main parking lots was deserted. The golf courses were empty, having been shut down by the general manager’s orders earlier this week after a club member tested positive for Covid-19. “It looked like a ghost town,” Lord said. “I feel bad for their business, because nothing says in the order that no one can use their resort property.”
It appears to be a ghost town, but either Hammock Beach got advance notice of FireFlight’s flight, or it had temporarily suspended access to the pools and its outdoor grounds. After this article initially published, FlaglerLive obtained 23 pictures taken by a resident of the resort with views of one of the resort’s pools and its golf course. The pictures were taken today, Wednesday and over the past weekend, all of them showing numerous people clustered on pool decks, in pools or on greens (but not playing golf).
After its city commission had resisted any attempt to close the beach last week, Flagler Beach took the lead on Sunday in closing its beach on the recommendation of Bob Snyder, the county’s health department chief. The county had also been reluctant to close its 12 miles of beach, but followed suit.
“Although not extremely busy,” Snyder had written Police Chief Doughney last Sunday, after touring the beach with him, “we did observe enough activity and groups of people who were not keeping their distance from each other as suggested by public health authorities to warrant closure of the beach, pier and boardwalk areas as soon as practically possible. This action is especially important as a public health mitigation strategy since we have a higher than average segment of elderly residents in our community who are most at risk for contacting the virus. I make this recommendation to reduce the transmission of COVID 19 in Flagler County.”
Three days later, Doughney was jubilant about the level of compliance with the order. “I’m standing and clapping,” he said this morning. “I couldn’t be prouder of our community for the way they have followed those directions and the request of keeping off the beach. They have done an absolutely stellar job.”
A sheriff’s deputy is assisting the city every day on an ATV, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., “and each and every day the deputy has been assigned to that has done an amazing job as well,” Doughney said. “We haven’t had any defiance.” Some people have had to be approached on the beach, he said–people who don’t necessarily follow social media or would somehow not have heard the news. But when approached, “compliance has been gained and that was the goal all along. We have not made one arrest, we have not issued one notice to appear.”
The police chief was just as proud of the city’s ardent, intuitively rebellious surfing community. “They have been absolutely fantastic,” Doughney said. “I would be remiss if I didn’t thank them specifically because I know they want to be on the beach. The other day the waves were great, and there was nobody in the water.”
Beach closures have been left to local governments in Florida, with many counties and cities doing so, and many resisting. Tuesday, the Daytona Beach City Commission and its mayor urged county government there to close Volusia County’s beaches.
Overall policing in the county has continued apace, with arrests and calls for service continuing as in normal times, Staly said. The county jail remains Covid-19-free. Two deputies who traveled to New York and Mexico are in 14-day self-isolation. Otherwise, the ranks are at full capacity.