Flagler County’s and Florida’s numbers of coronavirus infections are “absolutely not” at the point of decline, Flagler County Health Department Chief Bob Snyder said this afternoon. “One day is not a trend,” he said. “We’re headed towards the apex still.” For that reason, he said, it is premature to think of reopening the shore for public use in the county and Flagler Beach in the next few weeks.
Snyder’s recommendation is that “the beaches remain closed until we see strong evidence that the worst is over and that the community spread is on the decline, as evidenced by the data and what the data tells us,” he said. “What we’re hearing from the state scientists and also nationally, we’re not out of the woods yet, it’s going to be–as the surgeon general said–a very bad rough couple of weeks, if not longer.”
The Flagler County Commission has been under pressure from residents at least to partially reopen the beaches, on the Volusia model: keep parking restrictions in place, but allow people to walk, run, swim and surf, while maintaining social distances and disallowing gatherings. The commission met for the first time virtually this morning, each commissioner in his home and county staffers either at home or in offices. They heard a summary of the many emails they’d received on the beaches, but County Administrator Jerry Cameron stuck to the decision to keep the sands closed.
“It is certainly odd to see and hear of all of the activities going on here at the private clubs in the Hammock in light of the limits to walking on the beach,” one resident wrote.
“I live in Sea Colony,” Tom Voges wrote. “My neighbors and I would like to be able to walk, fish and swim at our beach. We respected social distancing even when our beach was open.” Donna McCutchan of the Hammock wrote: “I feel the mental health for those who live here is very important during this time. Walking and riding on sidewalks can be a [lot] closer to others than the beach.” Sherry Babbitt of Palm Coast wrote: “Beach walks offer so many health (and emotional) benefits for people that I believe allowing this would be a blessing during this difficult time.” Therese Bennett of Palm Coast proposed letting police “write a few $500 tickets to any egregious offenders” while letting others enjoy the beach within given restrictions.
“The rules I’ve seen posted for beaches in FL and GA are quite simple,” Mark Stevens of Palm Coast wrote. “No towels, no chairs, no umbrellas and no gatherings for sports or parties. As a frequent walker/runner/ bicyclist I’ve seen the sidewalks and paths are more crowded than ever with the same (and dog walkers) and a ‘6ft rule’ isn’t being followed because people won’t step off the sidewalk when passing.”
“Nobody wants to deprive people of the right to use the beach or any of our facilities. It is strictly for safety,” Cameron said during the virtual meeting. “When you have people that are dying in large numbers in the state–we’ve only lost one hyere, but we have had about 14 hospitalized–it’s a serious situation, and just as soon as it looks prudent to do so, we’ll recommend to this board of county commissioners that these beaches be opened and our other facilities be opened.” (Department of Health figures indicate that five Flagler County residents have been hospitalized in the county because of Covid-19. It is unclear if Cameron was referring to non-county residents.)
The administrator compared the measures government employees were under, to keep doing their work, with severe restrictions on their freedom and strict requirements every time they enter the Government Services Building, such as having to have their temperature taken and responding to questions about their current health.
“This is a good time to display citizenship, rather than to think about what you aren’t being able to do because of the measures that are necessary to protect you,” Cameron said. “We ask for your support, because with that, our employees are a lot less discouraged than when continually criticized for exposing themselves to danger and trying to do what [are] the best practices to protect you.”
County Commission Chairman Dave Sullivan was more direct in an interview after the meeting. “People are being selfish about the beaches,” he said, noting that most of those who wrote commissioners live near the beach, and would be happy to have use of the beach for themselves while keeping others off of them, since they are also in agreement with the parking restrictions. That would create an unequal situation, privileging the beach for its neighbors, Sullivan said.
“We have a serious, designated disaster going on and under those circumstances there’s a lot you can do to restrict movement of people,” Sullivan said.
There’s also a broader aim in the county’s and Flagler Beach’s restrictions.
“If in fact it was just our folks that were out there walking, practicing social distancing and being responsible, then they are correct, that would probably be a beneficial thing rather than a detrimental one,” Cameron said. “But what we have seen across the state is that if you permit people to go on the beach in one area when other areas are closed, then you get an influx of people from outside that come into the county, which we would prefer not to have happen in any case. And when they get on the beach, they do not practice good, safe practices. They don’t do social distancing and they don’t do group control.”
That’s the reason Snyder and Matt Doughney, the police chief in Flagler Beach, originally decided to close the beach in the city, with Flagler County following suit.
Neither the county nor the city have enough law enforcement personnel to devote to patrolling the beaches if they were left open. Currently, the sheriff has one or two ATV patrols in the unincorporated areas, and Flagler Beach looks over its own beaches. The decision is reviewed on a weekly basis.
“I think we’re at least a week away to relaxing the restrictions, depending on how things go,” Sullivan said.
That may be too optimistic. “We do understand what’s happening in Volusia, but the next two to three weeks are expected to be the worst,” Snyder said. “So now is the time to be the most vigilant in practicing social distancing and doing the right thing, and that includes keeping the beaches closed.”