Commissioners are set to meet at 9 a.m. Thursday to approve an ordinance implementing the beach closure, and outlining the specifics of the action.
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DEFUNIAK SPRINGS — Walton County commissioners voted unanimously Wednesday to close all 26 miles of the county’s beaches, public and private, under the terms of a local state of emergency declared earlier this week in light of the coronavirus, the virus behind COVID-19.
Commissioners are set to meet at 9 a.m. Thursday to approve an ordinance implementing the beach closure and outlining the specifics of the action.
Commissioners took the action after learning that Walton County had its first positive test for coronavirus, a person identified only as a non-Florida resident by Holly Holt, administrator of the Walton County Health Department. Privacy laws prevented Holt from telling commissioners and the public much more about the victim, including whether he or she remains in the area.
Holt did say that health officials are now working to track down the people who had contact with that person.
Between Wednesday evening and Thursday morning, county counsel Sidney Noyes was set to work with Walton County Sheriff Michael Adkinson to work out the specifics of the beach closure ordinance. It’s possible, but not likely, according to Walton County Commission Chairman Bill Chapman, that commissioners could modify the ordinance proposal during Thursday’s meeting.
"I know no one wants to recommend closing the beaches," Holt told commissioners on Wednesday. But she said her research has indicated that many people coming to Walton County for vacation are coming from "hot spots" such as Nashville, where coronavirus is more prevalent than it is locally.
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"I know it would be horrible for tourism," Holt said. But without some action, she said, "People will come in, and it will just keep spreading and spreading and spreading."
Commissioners Danny Glidewell and Trey Nick initially were reluctant to close the beaches.
"There’s a lot that we don’t know about this virus, and I think it might be just a little bit premature to shut those beaches down," Nick said early in Wednesday’s discussion.
Chapman also was somewhat reluctant to close the beaches, saying at one point, "Government cannot protect everybody without the people protecting themselves and doing what they need to do."
Before voting Wednesday, commissioners fretted over the impact of the beach closure on local businesses during tourist season. In that regard, they heard from Heather Duncan of AJ’s restaurants, who said the economic impact "is going to be huge."
Duncan contended that the coronavirus has been overblown, telling commissioners "a lot of this has been sensationalized," and contending that "more people have died of the flu."
Prior to Wednesday’s vote, a number of commissioners told the two dozen people gathered for the special called meeting that they had spent long hours and sleepless night agonizing over the question of closing the beaches.
"This is killing us up here," Commissioner Tony Anderson said. "This is ... taking people’ jobs."
Following Wednesday’s meeting, Adkinson repeated his department’s preferred approach to any beach closure, which is to encourage voluntary compliance.
Adkinson said he prefers an ordinance that shuts down all 26 miles of the county’s beaches, just in terms of making enforcement more clear than a piecemeal approach.
But, he said, "I’ll work with whatever they (the commissioners) give me."
In other county action related to coronavirus and COVID-19, the Walton County Department of Emergency Management has activated its Citizen Information Center Helpline to address questions about the illness. The helpline phone number is 850- 892-8392.
"At no time should you call 911," for information about the coronavirus, a county announcement of the new service noted. "911 is for immediately life-threatening emergencies only."