Last Updated: 3:30 p.m.
After sustaining intense pressure from residents and from some county officials, and with beaches reopened to the north and south, Flagler Beach plans to re-open its beach on a limited basis starting next week, as does the county.
The beach will open from 7 a.m. to midday, or possibly only to 10 a.m., with activities limited to exercise, swimming, surfing, and any other activity that does not entail stationary behavior such as sunbathing or socializing in large groups. Social distancing guidelines will still be in place. According to a plan discussed at a meeting of county and city officials today, Flagler County beaches would also have afternoon hours.
The pier will remain closed, as will the boardwalk. The parking ban will remain in place along the boardwalk, and fishing will not be allowed in the area on either side of the Pier, according to information the Flagler Beach police chief conveyed to city officials late Friday. The city and the county were to announce the reopening in a pair of releases either later today or Sunday. (At 3:30 Saturday afternoon, the county issued a release stating that “The exact details continue to be ironed out, and a formal announcement will likely be made on Tuesday.”)
County and city officials were still discussing the details, but absent an unexpected turn of events, the plans’ broader outlines were set, with only details to be filled in such as precise hours and possibly the actual day of reopening. Officials are nervous about messaging.
How either the county or the city will enforce the measures is unclear but the Flagler Beach police chief and the sheriff at today’s meeting said they would deploy policing on ATVs, though they don’t intend to police such things as mask-wearing. Flagler Beach and Bunnell are in agreement with the plan. Palm Coast is not, though the plan, still at the administrative level, must still be vetted by elected city and county officials.
During today’s discussion, Flagler Beach Police Chief Matt Doughney told the rest of the officials that he was concerned about a surge in civil disobedience if the city didn’t relax its approach to some degree. Flagler Health Department Chief Bob Snyder echoed Doughney’s sentiments during the meeting.
“Due to all the surrounding areas opening up now, we will be follow suit,” Flagler Beach City Commissioner Eric Cooley said this morning. He said he’d spoken with Doughney about the plan Friday evening. Doughney and Flagler Beach Fire Chief Bobby Pace, the acting city manager, have been running the city administratively, with City Manager Larry Newsom on sick leave.
“We were not expecting St. Johns to open, so we need to get the staff in place,” Cooley continued. St. Johns County reopened its beaches on a limited basis, from 6 a.m. to noon, seven days a week, starting Friday. “I think timing wise it’s a terrible decision due to the peak of the virus coming and Florida still posting almost record high cases daily, but it just doesn’t make sense to be the only beach closed and if we can set it up with sensible restrictions, we can give the citizens a place to unwind.”
The county’s executive policy group, which collects the county’s city managers, the county manager, law enforcement and emergency management, was to discuss the re-opening at its 10:30 meeting today, and again at a noon meeting coordinated by emergency management, that one with Snyder. Snyder was reluctant to address the issue in an interview this morning.
“I am going to reserve comment, I want to know what’s going on first, I want to hear what people are thinking before I make any comment,” Snyder said. “It’s not that I am in the dark. I know it’s going to be discussed sometime today. I just knew that folks wanted to gather to talk about it.”
In fact, the discussions have been intense and ongoing for days. Flagler Beach Commissioner Rick Belhumeur said he was reluctant to see beaches reopen as well, but was basing his approach on Snyder’s. “I’m pretty steadfast on it,” he said. “We wouldn’t do it unless we got the OK from the health department.” He said city officials “swore we wouldn’t open it unless we had his approval,” meaning Snyder’s–and that now, Snyder had given it.
But Snyder just as adamantly would not confirm that to be the case, repeating that he would reserve comment until after today’s meetings.
“So I’ll be listening in,” Snyder said. “I think you know that Jacksonville opened up their beaches yesterday, I think St Johns is doing it today, so I probably need to reserve comments until after this meeting. I’m appreciative that they’re going to be including me in it.”
All week on the radio Snyder had reiterated the importance of staying the course on social distancing and stay-at-home recommendations. As recently as Thursday, Flagler Beach had joined Bunnell and Palm Coast to reassert the importance of keeping parks and other such public venues closed to protect against community transmission of the coronavirus, and with the expected apex of the virus’s impact on healthcare facilities still two to three weeks away. Florida is still adding infections at a rate of more than 1,000 people per day. Infections in Flagler County were up to 55 as of Saturday morning, with two deaths and seven hospitalizations.
But county officials pivoted Thursday, opting to reopen some trails and parks and saying it was time to start reopening society, gradually. Flagler County Emergency Management Chief Jonathan Lord described the reopening as a small, experimental step, testing whether residents will continue to abide by social distancing rules. He said the experiment would be ended if there was a lot of non-compliance, though Sheriff Rick Staly said he would not have his agency turned into “the social distancing police.”
County and city officials have been under mounting pressure from residents to reopen public amenities like the beach and parks, with a continuing stream of emails making it to their in-box, some of it bitter and angry, some of it reflecting President Trump’s calls this week on several governors to “liberate” their states from stay-home orders and “reopen.” The president’s tweets have encouraged rebellious demonstrations against stay-home orders. Local officials on one hand were beginning to worry about such demonstrations while, on the other, some were eager to ride the chants for “reopening” and appear to be championing public sentiment, whatever the recommendations from public health officials: the county had moved to reopen its parks and trails against Snyder’s explicit recommendation.
“As you can see by the subject of this email I am requesting you to immediately re-open Flagler beach and all beaches in Flagler county,” a Flagler Beach resident wrote city commissioners on April 13. “The looming threat of civil and criminal penalty for stepping foot on a public space is a concerning matter not to be taken lightly. … I will be watching this matter closely and voting and campaigning according to how this issue is handled.”
“In accordance with the governors executive order where he calls for exercise outdoors with activities such as walking, running, swimming, surfing, etc., we are telling our elected officials to open our parks and beaches to reasonable activities like the ones mentioned above,” another resident wrote. “We understand, as we hope you do, that there will always be those that choose to ignore proper procedures in any situation. We ask that those people who make that choice be dealt with in an appropriate manner and not penalize the rest of the citizens who are complying with simple restrictions.
There’s been no unanimity on the issue by any means. “I am a resident of Flagler Beach since 2007,” a man wrote commissioners on Friday. “I do not want to see the beaches open. I see cars from NY and NJ all here & sitting at the same picnic tables all day long. Let others go to the beaches open somewhere else where the numbers are higher, we have not done enough testing to know where we truly ate.”
From the county’s side, it was clear since the second half of the week that Commissioner Joe Mullins was driving the push to reopen parks and beaches, as a petulant Facebook post this morning illustrated: “THESE ARE OUR HOMES NOT PRISON CELLS,” he wrote, the text here reproduced exactly as it appeared on Facebook, with its usual malapropisms. “We have been put in timeout from our beaches , parks and trails; WE ARE NOT KIDS! We have followed protocol and keep our cases low. It’s time to be rewarded for our hard work and soften a bit. Some need to stay in and some can safely be out. I am a (constitutional conservative) that will not overplay this media driven pandemic. I am calling for our county and other leaders to follow Governor Ron DeSantis request and immediately begin safely opening our parks and beaches.”
Flagler Beach would also allow its city-owned, privately run nine-hole golf course at the south end of town to reopen. Terry McManus, who runs the course, had been upset that the golf course was closed. ” I don’t want to be part for the rumor mill, but I am told it was discussed at the meeting that if the beaches are closed, why is the golf course open,” he wrote commissioners in an email Friday. “That is apples to oranges on a number of levels. But at bare minimum, the beach is owned and maintained and run by the city. The golf course is owned but completely 100% maintained by Flagler Golf Management, LLC. A private company. We are not funded by or receive any assistance from the City.”
McManus submitted a two-page “Proposed Covid-19 Operating Guidelines” for the golf course.
Details of the model Flagler Beach and the county were to follow regarding beach rules were not yet clear, but the models have been consistent from county to county. St. Johns summed up its model this way on Friday: “The grouping of persons, commercial activities, group sports, and activities that do not require motion, such as sunbathing, and sitting, or those otherwise not allowed by local, state, or federal law are not permitted. In addition, items not allowed on the beach include blankets, chairs, coolers, umbrellas, tents, and any item that promotes a stationary presence. Beach visitors must continue to adhere to CDC social distancing guidelines, including limiting gatherings to no more than ten persons and distancing themselves from other parties by a minimum of six feet. All public parking lots are now open; however on-beach driving remains prohibited.”