Just three days after reopening beaches for a few hours a day, Flagler County and Flagler Beach have agreed to reopen all 18 miles of beach in the county 24 hours starting Sunday at 7 a.m., while maintaining restrictions only on certain activities on the beach: “for leisure, no, for exercise, yes,” as Flagler Beach Police Chief Matt Doughney put it this afternoon.
The reopening, more than a month after the beaches were initially shut down in response to the coronavirus emergency, is a big victory for those who have been pressuring local governments to lift restrictions. It comes with the blessing of the Flagler Department of Health, according to Doughney. But it was not a response to anything more than compliance with existing social distancing rules.
“Today’s decision was not a knee jerk based on pressure from the outside, whether it be a rally or a concern,” Doughney said, referring in part to a political, pro-Trump rally earlier today in Flagler Beach that also shaded into protest against keeping beaches and businesses closed. “It was calculated based on support from the Department of Health and compliance from the community, so the community getting their beach back for longer hours is up to their amazing compliance over the last week.”
The beaches will be open but Flagler Beach will maintain its no-parking restrictions along the boardwalk, and will keep the pier closed for now.
The county and Flagler Beach were expected to issue a joint press release later this afternoon.
“We are supportive of the beach reopening decision made by community leaders,” Florida Department of Health Chief Bob Snyder was quoted as saying in a county statement on its Facebook page. “In normal times, we advocate physical activity through walking, running, surfing and enjoying the outdoors. So ‘exercise don’t socialize,’ keep moving and don’t forget your sunblock and other protective health measures.”
Doughney repeatedly placed the credit for the reopening on community compliance with social distancing recommendations. “We had agreed if those things did occur that we would extend the hours so kudos to the community for being patient and understanding,” he said.
Gathering in large groups is still not allowed on the beach, neither are commercial activities, group sports, and activities that do not require motion, such as sunbathing or sitting. Items not allowed on the beach include blankets, chairs, coolers, umbrellas, tents, and any item that promotes idling. Gatherings must be limited to 10 people or less, with distancing from other parties still at a minimum of six feet.
Parking areas in the county’s portion of the beaches will open on Tuesday, so county employees have time to clean rest rooms and remove barriers.
The beaches are reopening on another day of spiking Covid-19 confirmations in Flagler County, with the total number rising to 116 today, an addition of 10 new cases in 24 hours, after adding 28 cases on Thursday. But hospitalizations, an indication of the proportion of severe cases, remains stable at a total of eight since the emergency began, with no indication of an uptick in line with rising Covid-19 cases this week. The caveat: the numbers the Department of Health provides for Flagler does not indicate if any of the county’s individuals infected with Covid-19 are hospitalized outside the county.
Some 1,225 Flagler residents have been tested since the emergency began, still less than 1 percent of the county’s population, while 335,000 Floridians have been tested. A test indicates the status of a patient only at that moment: it is entirely possible that people tested, say, two or three weeks ago, who tested negative, could have contracted the disease since. In Florida, almost 31,000 cases have been confirmed, but federal, state and local officials have repeatedly said that the figures are an undercount. Flagler County Emergency Management Chief Jonathan Lord this week said he thinks there are “thousands” of cases in the county. But the upside to the number is that while high, it may indicate that the proportion of complications from the disease may be lower than initially believed. Further, the trend indicating emergency room visits involving coughs or fevers has been somewhat downward since March 25, as has the trend regarding shortness of breath, if a little less so in those cases.
The level of testing available at the moment is not sufficient to allow the county, or most communities around the nation, to do what is essential if the country is to recover a semblance of normalcy: massive testing that enables community surveillance, and contact tracing on an equally massive scale when cases are confirmed.
Nevertheless, three states, including Georgia, reopened their economy late this week, and Gov. Ron DeSantis’s stay-at-home orders, including a restriction or ban on bars, gyms and restaurants’ operations, is set to expire on April 30. (Restaurants have been allowed to provide take-out service only.) On Friday, Palm Coast unveiled its phased plan to a recommended reopening. The county has not issued a plan.
[This is a developing story. More soon.]