Flagler Beach and Flagler County are closing their beaches to the public starting at 6 a.m. Monday, joining a growing list of coastal communities and counties doing likewise in an increasingly strict response to the coronavirus.
The Flagler Beach Pier will also be closed, and parking areas will be sealed off along the boardwalk and the pier.
City Manager Larry Newsom said today at 3 p.m. that he reached the decision after consultation with Flagler Health Department Director Bob Snyder, who recommended the move.
“We will follow suit,” County Administrator Jerry Cameron said this afternoon, regarding the county’s 12 miles of beaches. “It’s important for us to be unified, the last thing we need to do is to confuse the public.”
Snyder said he observed the beach Saturday and had concerns. He contacted Flagler Beach Police Chief Matt Doughney and the two toured the beach today.
“Matt Doughney and I toured the beach today, I was concerned,” Snyders said, “because I noticed yesterday when I drove around the beach, I did see a few pockets of people that were not practicing social distancing as we recommended, CDC and DOH,” meaning the Centers for Disease Control and the Department of Health. “He said Bob, let’s make a decision together, we’ll follow your guidance.” Snyder said there were “too many small gatherings and pockets of people who were not practicing social distancing, some of the folks were senior, it caused some concern. He decided along with us to let things be for today.”
Covid-19 infections have been soaring in Florida, well exceeding 800. Florida’s number may be a significant undercount because testing for the virus has only begun, relative to a dearth of test kits last week. The number of infections exceeds 21,000 in the United States.
Newsom insists that “this isn’t martial law.” He said the police does not intend to arrest violators, since the last thing the sheriff wants is to crowd the jail with more inmates and run the risk of infections there. But Newsom said the police will reserve the right to issue notices to appear to violators.
“Our primary methodology from here on out for people that do go to the beach is educate, and then educate, and then educate,” Doughney said in mid-afternoon today. “The last thing we want to do is to arrest somebody for going down to the beach.” He said the effort is entirely geared toward public safety, not punishment. But if individuals continue to flout the requests to remain off the beach, then measures will be stepped up, and such things as notices to appear and arrest affidavits could be forwarded to the State Attorney’s Office, to be dealt with beyond the emergency window.
The county had already closed its rest rooms last week. The city will close its rest rooms Monday morning. It will seal off access to the beach at walkovers, as will the county.
“We’re not the medical experts. This is a virus, this is not something that medically we’re very good at, so we have to respect the recommendations we’re getting from the medical industry,” Newsom said. “If I felt like it was safe to keep the beaches open, there’s no one more than me that would want to keep the beaches open. But I can’t do that at this point in time.”
Just last Thursday four of the Flagler Beach City Commission’s five commissioners spoke in favor of keeping the beach open, as did the mayor. “What pushes us in the other directions is we have guidance from the professionals” at the health department, Newsom said.
Commissioner Eric Cooley had been pressing toward beach closure since the middle of last week, though his store on the beach has been benefiting from the business.
“I think it’s too little, too late, I think we should have shut them down earlier, I think we should have shut them down even before I said we should have shut them down,” Cooley said, describing the beach even this afternoon as “packed,” especially along the boardwalk and picnic tables. He said the virus’s danger is its exponential rate of growth. “We put ourselves at risk by not making the changes.”
“I’m glad we’re shutting it down at all. I wasn’t sure when it was going to happen. But we waited too long. That’s the bottom line. It’s very nerve wracking, and the risk is high,” Cooley said. He said this isn’t about finger-pointing: “We can’t really point fingers or anything because this is an issue that a lot of countries are facing,” he said. But he is critical of the general tone from officials, who have sent mixed signals–and from a federal government that downplayed the problem for too many weeks, leading to a situation where “we have 50 percent of the population that is highly concerned, 50 percent that thinks it ranks up there with the common cold. Unfortunately we’re learning a lot of the facts about this virus too late. I think that’s played into it.”
Cooley continued: “We can case-study Italy and know exactly how this is going to play out, and yet we have a mental block, that we as Americans are somehow immune, and I hate to say it it’s been pushed down from our top leadership that hey, we’ll be just fine. Well, some of us will be just fine, some of us will not, and it’s real scary.” He said local numbers indicating only one Covid-19 case are irrelevant. “It’s here,” he said, ridiculing any bragging that the county doesn’t have cases. “It lulls people into this false sense of security that has driven some of this behavior, and that’s happened from the top level of government, it’s transferred to locals. We don;t need to brag that we have no cases.” He said people should be told to stay home. .
“We’re fighting a health issue and need to heed the advice of experts,” Flagler Beach Commissioner Rick Belhumeur said.
[This is a developing story. More soon.]