Flagler County government today announced the reopening of all 18 miles of beaches in the county, including Flagler Beach’s, but only for a few hours a day and with activities limited to exercise and steady motion–no sunbathing, no large-group or extended socializing, no lounging. The county and the city are prepared to re-impose the 24-hour ban on beach use if residents don’t follow social-distancing rules as the coronavirus emergency continues.
Flagler County Commissioners spoke of the reopening at their virtual meeting Monday as a tentative step. But commissioners and officials have different views on how far and how fast that reopening should go. Commission Chairman Dave Sullivan is stressing that reopening businesses is a “two-edged sword,” with distancing and masks in public essential if resumptions will be made to work. Emergency Management Chief Jonathan Lord echoed Sullivan’s call to wear masks in public. A less cautious approach is illustrated by Commissioner Joe Mullins, who is pushing for a broader reopening while claiming that “our homes have been made cells.”
The beach reopening will be limited to 7 to 10 a.m. daily in Flagler Beach and unincorporated beaches, with an additional 6 to 8 p.m. window in the unincorporated areas, plus Beverly Beach and Marineland. The Flagler Beach Pier will remain closed at all times. Parking along the boardwalk will remain prohibited, so as to prevent any social gatherings along the boardwalk or at the picnic tables there. Fishing will only be permitted north of 10th Street North or south of 10th Street South.
“I don’t want to give the impression that we’re opening the county. We’re not,” Sullivan sad in a brief interview today. “Flagler County and Florida are not in Phase One yet. Period.”
Sullivan was referring to the different phases laid out in the White House’s “Guidelines Opening Up America Again,” issued last week. The guidelines outline a phased approach, with Phase One still calling on the vulnerable and elderly to shelter in place, gatherings outside limited to 10 people or less, social distancing rules still applying, and the minimization of non-essential travel. Bars would remain closed, gyms could open with strict physical distancing rules, and hospitals could resume elective surgeries on an outpatient basis. Phases two and three relax many strictures while still keeping in place a series of distancing and hygiene protocols.
The new order applying to Flagler County’s beaches is a reflection of the same phased-in, localized approach to an eventual opening, applying to the county’s most sought-after amenity.
“What we’re attempting to accomplish is to recognize that we’re moving into a transition period,” County Attorney Al Hadeed said, “that it is going to be based on public health considerations, resources that we have to monitor, or manage resources that are open to the public, that we’ve got to perform these things in coordination with the municipalities–not necessarily that we’re all doing exactly the same thing, but rather each of the general service local governments have the ability to tailor the transition that they want to undertake, that meet their particular needs, the needs of their population, their resources, and the character of the public facilities that they have.”
The new order still leaves the county administrator–Jerry Cameron–in charge of making the final call regarding county beaches, but it leaves it to municipalities to tailor their own approaches. The order is “based on the evidence that is available to the county administrator, particularly with respect to public safety, the spread of the virus, whether it is being contained, what are numbers are showing, combined with how our public is respecting the guidance that we placed on their use of the facilities,” Hadeed said.
The county is not explaining how it will gauge or judge whether the public is following the rules, with so far Hadeed and County Health Department Chief Bob Snyder offering anecdotal evidence, based on what they’ve observed or heard, to say that residents are, in fact, abiding by the rules. The observations are by nature highly subjective, and contradict observations by Sullivan and Lord who reported the absence of masks by workers in high-traffic areas, such as take-out restaurants, the grocery store or–based on his doctor’s visit today–at a physician’s office. Siullivan was especially stunned by the presence of three people in the doctor’s waiting room, mask-less. (He was wearing one.)
The county did not vote on the new order but approved it by consensus. The order may be amended as time goes by. It also applies to county buildings and other county facilities.
The discussion then turned to reopening society, with some factual confusion.
“We need to get things opened up,” Commissioner Greg Hansen said. “Governor of Kentucky has now said their state is going to open up.” (In fact, Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear has not ordered the economy reopened. Rather, last Friday he outlined the benchmarks that must be met before reopening, including 14 days of decreases in new Covid-19 cases, increased capacity for testing and contact tracing, and several other steps first. “We could see the ability to open up in some small ways before May, during May and beyond,” the governor said, “but this will be a phased approach based on our benchmarks and recommendations from many groups.”
Hansen himself acknowledged that the community is not ready for reopening. “But we’re killing our small businesses, we’re killing our restaurants, and our hair salons and our nail salons and our barber shops,” he said. “So I really hope that we can keep marching ahead and gradually open up more and more stuff.”
Commissioner Donald O’Brien did a Facebook “poll” on Monday. Support for reopening the beaches within restrictive guidelines appeared to win (the poll is actually a string of 200 comments, each saying whether they want the beaches opened or kept closed). O’Brien said he was criticized for it, in that “public opinion is not really listening to experts, that we’re only supposed to listen to experts like the CDC and the department of health,” he said (echoing a comment by Palm Coast City Council member Nick Klufas). But he defended the approach.
“Citizens,” O’Brien said, “they’re their own experts, they’re experts in their own lives, and we do listen to them, and public opinion in its entirety is a data point, and that’s one of the things we do have to consider as we make these very tough choices.” He said commissioners were not taking the decision lightly or for political motivations.
Sullivan said “getting our businesses open is absolutely critical, but it’s a two-edged sword.” He cited the necessary steps before opening, failing which communities could have difficult setbacks. “We have to continue the social distancing and testing, because if we don’t do that, the opening of the businesses will not go well. We have to go down both sides of the track on this, and if we don’t do that, we’ll fail both ways. I just wanted to reiterate to everybody that yes, we’re moving forward, angog to get our businesses and parks and everything open as soon as we can, but it’s not going to work unless we continue to really agree to the social distancing, wearing masks when you’re in public places, which I have noticed is not done at Home Depot. I was there over the weekend, or even at Publix, not everybody is wearing a mask.”
As of today, Florida was nearing 28,000 confirmed cases of Covid-19, with 4,226 hospitalizations. The state added 778 cases today. Flagler had 78 cases and eight hospitalizations. The hospitalization number is cumulative. It does not reflect the number of people who have been discharged, or the two residents who have died of Covid-19, but were previously hospitalized.
While two Flagler County residents who have contracted the disease work at a nursing home facility or an assisted living facility, they do so out of the county. No facility within the county has had a case affecting a resident or a staff member within it.
Testing continues in the county, with 70 tests administered in the last two days, according to the Department of Health’s figures, for a total of 1,054, or just under 1 percent of the county’s population.
Commissioner Charlie Ericksen during Monday’s meeting asked Lord about Sunday’s FlaglerLive article pointing out the return of 650 test kits that could not be used locally, and reporting on the inaccuracy of a county government claim that testing had increased 75 percent last week. Lord did not dispute the reporting, saying only that the figures depend on which base figures are used for the calculation. (While testing increased between week two and week three, it did not increase between week three and week four, which was last week.)
But instead of correcting the county’s mistake, Cameron, the county administrator, doubled down on false claims. He had made false claims against FlaglerLive’s article during emergency management’s daily 10:30 a.m. call with county and municipal officials Monday. He did not allude to the news service directly at the commission meeting, but said that “pseudo-media outlets” were hurting the credibility of the county, saying that “for people to be irresponsible enough to try to destroy trust and the people that are managing this crisis, is just unconscionable.”
Cameron, who has a history of shifting blame to media for his own administration’s missteps, did not say how the reporting was inaccurate. Nor did he say so in an email asking him to outline what he saw as inaccurate within an hour of the meeting. He did not respond to a follow-up email again asking him to back up his claim.