Last Updated: 5:18 p.m.
Flagler County Administrator Jerry Cameron this morning told county, city and law enforcement officials during the daily emergency management conference call that the county was preparing to reopen its parks for limited individual or household use on a trial basis, to give residents some room to breathe and test whether they would respect the social distancing rules in place. He announced the decision as a done deal.
City officials were taken aback, and displeased on several counts: the county’s decision seemed unilateral, as it had not been discussed ahead of time just hours earlier in the executive policy group that consists of the county’s and city’s executives and law enforcement chiefs. The decision appeared premature, with even local health officials saying that the apex of the coronavirus is still two to three weeks away. And city officials worry that the county’s mixed message would sow confusion and make the job of maintaining existing stay-at-home rules more difficult.
The county had not consulted law enforcement chiefs, either. And the local department of health chief was not on board–only a day after Cameron, at the same conference call, had spoken of Flagler’s exceptional efforts in the region. To some who were on the call, the county’s move was a throwback to pre-Cameron days when the county often moved arbitrarily and with dismal communications with fellow governments.
After the morning conference call, Flagler County Health Department Chief Bob Snyder spoke with Cameron. Cameron wouldn’t budge–in essence, going against the health department’s recommendations.
The county’s re-opening of parks would not apply to the county’s beaches, or even to a park at the beach, such as Varn Park. When Cameron queried each city toward the end of the discussion this morning about the re-opening, the response was unanimous: no city wanted any park, including county parks within city limits, to re-open.
“We’re all in agreement that parks in our jurisdictions should remain close and only be reopened after they’re determined safe to do so by the department of health,” Flagler Beach Police Chief Matt Doughney, who spoke with Flagler Beach Acting Manager Bobby Pace (the city’s fire chief) said this afternoon. “The cities and law enforcement across the board with the municipalities were steadfast, and let our opinions be known, and they still moved forward with their decision.”
In a remarkable move that shows the seriousness of the opposition–and the the new division between the county and the cities–Palm Coast, Bunnell and Flagler Beach were preparing a joint statement in the form of a press release, explaining their stance, Doughney said. Similarly, the county was preparing its own press release explaining its re-opening.
Palm Coast City Manager Matt Morton found the county’s decision incomprehensible, especially in the face of what had been a unified approach to the emergency so far, and in the face of resistance verbalized at this morning’s call. “The cities are resistant, I know the health department is resistant,” Morton said. “the conversation just emerged there and did receive quite a bit of resistance from the cities.”
Snyder could not be reached before this article initially published. But Doughney also said that the health department was on the cities’ side. It was in conjunction with Doughney that Snyder in late March reached the decision that beaches should be closed. The decision has caused city and county officials quite a bit of grief as they continue to receive emails and other communications from residents who want their beaches reopened. The county’s move appears to be an attempt to defuse some of the pressure by giving a little ground, though the county is doing so at the expense of what until now had been a remarkably cohesive approach.
And Snyder was quoted in the city’s release, lending his voice–and his weight–to the municipalities’ decision: “As you know, our numbers for positive cases and deaths are low for a reason because as a community we have made the right decisions to practice social distancing at an optimal level,” Snyder said. “The Palm Coast community and majority of residents in the County have heeded the advice of public health and governmental officials. This is paying off and we have not overburdened hospital resources or seen outbreaks in our nursing homes and long term care facilities as a result. Also, testing opportunities have improved significantly during the last week and we are catching up to the State average. Hang tough, resolute and we’ll let the virus, data and evidence of mitigation efforts continue to have a positive impact, so that our businesses and economy can reopen in a safe manner.”
“Yes, we cherish our independence and individual liberties,” Snyder had written last week in response to an particularly insulting email he’d received from a constituent opposing beach closures. “But when faced with a deadly virus, 10 times more contagious than the flu, a novel virus that we are just learning about, with no vaccine, no antiviral medication, no treatment other than supportive care–yea, it is incumbent on everyone to do the right thing and practice behaviors that we have all been communicating the last few weeks. One person’s freedom to do what they want versus what is in the best interest and common good of the community will sometimes be at odds when faced with a public health emergency.”
Morton cited three reasons why Palm Coast, among the first cities to impose a stay-at-home recommendation in the state, was not changing course: the apex curve was just pushed back to May 3. While the county has one of the lowest incidence rate of infections, he says “I don’t think that’s a fluke,” seeing existing measures as the reason. He’s been focused on preserving resources, including the health of first responders, whose calls might increase if parks are again active. And, as he told Cameron during the call, he finds it “disingenuous” of the county to imagine that reopening its parks would not also attract out of county residents when it’s spent years marketing those amenities through its tourism bureau.
The city officials also told the county administrator that their resources would be in unnecessarily higher demand whether or not open parks were in cities’ jurisdictions: mutual aid agreements between agencies mean that, say, Flagler Beach will respond with its firefighters anywhere they’re needed in the county, as will palm Coast’s. And they are concerned about the mixed messaging.
“We’re not going to be the social distancing police,” Sheriff Rick Staly said. “I’m not going to have my deputies risk contracting Covid-19 to enforce social distancing. We’ll educate from a distance, but we’re not going to issue notices to appear or make an arrest, because I need my first responders to respond to criminal activity, and if they get sick, that doesn’t help us all. The concern that I have is that Florida is not predicted to peak until May 6. We’re having good compliance now overall. But I don’t make the decisions on when the policies change, and when I found out about it this morning, I gave my input.”
County Commission Chairman Dave Sullivan sees the initiative as more of a test run than anything else. “We were going to do a very small kind of test starting this weekend,” he said. “This has nothing to do with the beaches. But it would be county parks and trails. The idea is to do a very limited, a few hours a day, trial opening to see if people will keep their distance, and be able to use the trails and exercise and that kind of thing. But it wouldn’t be a full-scale opening of the parks. The idea is that walking on a trail or a park wouldn’t be too different than walking on the street now. The social distancing would be maintained, but that would not include the beaches.”
County Commissioner Joe Mullins didn’t wait for the county’s announcement to be issued, taking to Facebook to make what he called “a big announcement,” and describing the reopening of county trails as part of the effort to “get America back where we need to be.” He prefaced his short announcement by saying that after setting policy, commissioners stepped back to let “trained medical professionals and trained emergency professionals” take actions. He said “they decided to close the beaches, the parks and the trails.”
He did not say that the professionals recommended the reopening of the trails. In fact, they had recommended against it. But Mullins attributed the decision to alleged community discussions “and the president saying last night we’re going to shift as a nation to start reopening, the governor saying we’re shifting to the state and starting to look at reopening, and the county, we’ve now started that dialogue and we’ve started talking about reopening the community.” Mullins’s statement was a window into the genesis of the county’s decision, which appears to be based more on politics than facts or science.
Sullivan’s description of the initiative was more measured than Mullins’s, saying the initiative would be shut down if it proved that residents were congregating again. “So this is not a mass movement here, it’s an attempt to see if people, now that they have had the social distancing, that we can do a little more of this, but it doesn’t change the social distancing requirements. It’s a minor step to do a little trial to see what’s possible within the current guidelines.”
Sullivan acknowledged that the cities were resistant–he’d gotten a call from Flagler Beach mayor Linda Provencher, who was concerned about the beaches, and the county’s moves taking place unilaterally. “She wouldn’t want us to just open the beaches without having discussed it with the mayor, with Flagler Beach, and that didn’t happen, it’s only the county parks, and not the beaches,” Sullivan said. “As far as the mixed message goes, I think people will understand if it’s explained properly, but this is a trial.” If the trial fails, he said, the initiative will be scrapped.
“This was a strategic decision. Easing of restrictions on the parks with trails is provisional, and it is based on appropriate social distancing,” Cameron was quoted as saying in the county’s release. “If it doesn’t work – if people take advantage of the situation and use it as an opportunity to gather together – we will immediately reclose the parks.” (Cameron could not be reached by phone before this article initially published.)
Jonathan Lord, the county’s emergency management chief, said the idea of trail access in county parks, individually or as household exercises, “is not violating any public health guidance.” He said it’s similar to n individual or a couple walking down the street. “Again, it truly is an experiment, we have not lifted our emergency order closing the parks. This is more of a stay” of that order in certain circumstances. “We’re not opening the building,s the playgrounds or the courts, because all of those encourage group activities.” He insisted that the minute the experiment goes awry, it would be ended. He said the county “has faith” in residents’ abiding by the rules.
“Very few counties in the state did a full-on park closure as we did,” Lord said.
Community centers, playgrounds, sports fields, courts, pavilion rentals, the skate park, and the buildings at Princess Place Preserve remain closed. The beach also remains closed. Reopening of additional facilities will be re-evaluated after the success of easing these restrictions has been determined, the release stated.