Beach closures are being undertaken as a public health measure to stem the spread of coronavirus, the new virus behind COVID-19, a respiratory illness.
This content is being provided for free as a public service to our readers during the coronavirus outbreak. Please support local journalism by subscribing to the Panama City News Herald.
MIRAMAR BEACH — As local edicts to temporarily shut down public beaches entered their first full week on Monday, voluntary compliance by private beachfront property owners was clearly evident, if not necessarily complete.
Beach closures are being undertaken as a public health measure to stem the spread of coronavirus, the new virus behind COVID-19, a respiratory illness. As of Monday morning, 14 people had tested positive for coronavirus in Okaloosa County and nine had tested positive in Walton County.
The local closure edicts, which could remain in effect until April 30, were assisted by a Sunday announcement by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection that all state parks would be closed beginning Monday. In Okaloosa and Walton counties, that edict covers beaches at Henderson Beach State Park, Topsail Hill Preserve State Park and Grayton Beach State Park.
Additionally in Okaloosa County, beach closure efforts were assisted by an Eglin Air Force Base decision to temporarily close its beaches, also through April 30.
In Walton County, the private beachfront property owners who have thus far elected to close their beaches include the Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort, Rosemary Beach and Seaside, according to Corey Dobridnia, public information officer for the Walton County Sheriff’s Office. Alys Beach has also announced that its beaches are closed.
Private beaches still open in Walton County as of Monday afternoon included the Edgewater Beach Condominiums in Miramar Beach, and Ocean Reef Vacation Rentals & Real Estate properties.
MARCH 23, 2020: Local non-profits struggle during COVID-19 crisis
Beach access for any number of individual condominiums along the beach also remained open on Monday, as viewed from various vantage points along Scenic Gulf Drive in Destin and Miramar Beach.
"We’ve tried to encourage them (private beach property owners)" to close their beaches, Dobridnia said.
But, Dobridnia said, sheriff’s deputies still have the power to enforce state mandates that no more than 10 people can congregate on a beach, and that people must remain six feet apart when congregated as hedges against the spread of coronavirus.
MARCH 23, 2020: FDOT: Keep paying your tolls, including Mid-Bay
Also according to Dobridnia, peer pressure could come into play if people continue to congregate on private beaches.
Already, she said, "the public is frustrated at those who continue to go to the beach."
In neighboring Okaloosa County, where commissioners voted last week to close public beaches, a move to require the closure of private beaches failed in a 2-3 vote.
CORONAVIRUS: Okaloosa County holds steady at 14 cases; FWB Medical Center reports no positive tests
A spot check with a couple of Okaloosa Island resorts indicated that their beaches were, in fact, open on Monday.
Beaches at Destin West likely will remain open until they are mandated to close, according to someone who answered the telephone there on Monday afternoon. The story is similar for The Island, where someone who answered the phone Monday afternoon noted the fluid nature of mandates for closing beaches.
In Destin, the City Council went a step further than the Walton and Okaloosa county governments, where it was hoped that private beach property owners would voluntarily comply with public beach closure mandates.
MARCH 23, 2020: Superintendent update: Computers available, graduation will take place
In Destin, council members approved the closure of both public and private beaches. According to a video released by the city on Monday afternoon, City Manger Lance Johnson is claiming 98% compliance by private beach property owners, according to Catherine Card, the city’s public information manager.
"We have gotten pushback from a few" beach property owners, Card said. But at the same time, she said, the city has been contacted by property owners saying "we want to align ourselves" with the public beach closures.
Michele Nicholson, public information officer for the Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office, said Monday that deputies "over the weekend did encounter a handful of issues on private beaches in Destin." But, she added, deputies who talked to beachgoers said "most willingly left after the health and safety concerns were explained.
"We want to emphasize that it is in each person’s best interest, and the community’s best interest, to follow the governor’s emergency orders, as well as Okaloosa County Commission, CDC, and Health Department guidelines designed to protect citizens and promote the greater good during a pandemic," Nicholson said in a Monday afternoon email.
On Sunday, Walton County code enforcement vehicles were readily visible on the beaches in the western end of the county, with code enforcement personnel stopping to speak with people about the closure of public beaches, and cruising through private stretches of beach.
MARCH 23, 2020: FWB declares state of emergency
In Okaloosa County on Monday, Logan Pakiz, a lifeguard with the Destin Fire Control District’s Beach Safety office, sat parked in an all-terrain vehicle at the water’s edge at the public beach access at the Crab Trap restaurant.
In addition to watching the water for swimmers, Pakiz is among the local government employees watching the beaches for compliance with the closure of public beaches, and watching over private beaches.
"Today’s been pretty good," Pakiz said. On Sunday, though, Pakiz had been working in the area of the private beach along Holiday Isle, where he said people were "mostly not" in voluntary compliance with the beach closure order.
"It’s a new situation," Pakiz said philosophically.
MARCH 23, 2020: Opinion: As much as it hurts, postponing Tokyo Olympics is what’s needed
Among the visitors still in Walton County on Monday, despite the beach closures, were Wally Quigg and his wife, Kathy, who are visiting their daughter and grandsons.
The couple had pulled into the Miramar Beach Regional Public Beach Access at Pompano Joe’s late Monday morning so Kathy could get a glass of tea, and while waiting, Wally sat in their truck, looking across the empty beach.
The Quiggs arrived for their visit on Feb. 20, and while they had thought about leaving as coronavirus-related concerns grew, they have opted to finish out their visit. They’ll be leaving, as planned, on April 1, Wally said.
PHOTOS: Virus rebels flout lockdown
"We got to the beaches right before they closed," he said, and while they will miss a few planned beach trips with their grandsons, they’ve managed to fill their time with fishing trips, and watching some of their grandsons’ baseball games at Niceville High School and Destin Middle School.
Local residents also made their way to the edges of the beach on Monday to take in their new reality.
At the Mirarmar public beach access, friends Robby Fagan and Sheldon Jernigan, who surf the local waters, stood staring out at the Gulf of Mexico late Monday morning.
PHOTOS: Vacant beaches on the Emerald Coast
"It’s weird," Fagan said, echoed a second later by Jernigan, who said, "It’s strange. It’s almost like something out of science fiction."
Both young men said they were surprised by the level of compliance with the beach closure edict.
"I’m surprised I am (in compliance)," Fagan joked.
A couple of miles east on Scenic Gulf Drive, a group of a half-dozen young women, all local residents, sat on a blanket spread across part of the boardwalk in Miramar Beach, eating meals from a nearby Chick-fil-A.
Normally, they admitted, they’d be on the beach, but they seemed resigned to being relegated to the boardwalk for the foreseeable future.
"A closed beach is not going to stop us from hanging out," said Stephanie Boykins. "As long as we have to do it, I think we’ll find creative ways to have fun."