The unanimous vote was somewhat controversial in that it crossed a line neither Okaloosa nor Walton counties dared cross the day before. The governing boards of both county’s voted to close just public portions of the beach.
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 Northwest Florida Daily News.
DESTIN — The Destin City Council voted Friday morning to close all beaches within the city limits, both public and private.
The unanimous vote was somewhat controversial in that it crossed a line neither Okaloosa nor Walton counties dared cross the day before. The governing boards of both counties voted to close just public portions of the beach.
Approximately 90 percent of the six miles of Destin beach are privately owned.
The closures will tentatively remain in effect until April 30, which coincides with the time period through which Okaloosa County has said its beaches will remain closed
Also Friday The 96th Test Wing commander ordered the closure of all Eglin beach property located on Okaloosa Island. This closure too is scheduled to run through April 30.
Eglin’s shuttered locations include Okaloosa Island beach pavilions and associated parking areas, a news release said. Barriers have been installed at beach access points and law enforcement officers will patrol the areas, the release said.
Council member Chatham Morgan, who made the motion to order the closure of private as well as public beaches, said he was "disappointed" that Gov. Ron DeSantis hadn’t acted himself to close all of the state’s beaches.
He added an addendum to his motion that said, should the city learn it does not have the authority to close its private beaches, staff would issue a formal call to the governor to order their closing.
The decision comes as pressure is building on DeSantis to close all of Florida’s beaches as the coronavirus known as COVID-19 continues its rampage across the state.
READ coverge of the coronavirus in the Destin area.
As of 11 a.m., Friday, 520 cases of COVID-19 had been reported in Florida with 474 of those infected being residents. Ten people have thus far died, according to the Florida Department of Health.
Five Okaloosa County residents and one non-resident have tested positive for the virus. Two Santa Rosa County residents have been diagnosed and a non-resident tested positive in Walton County.
DeSantis issued an executive order Friday closing the beaches in Broward and Palm Beach counties. Later in the day Walton County customary use activist and attorney Daniel Uhlfielder filed a lawsuit seeking to force DeSantis to close the rest of the state’s beaches.
MARCH 19, 2020: Okaloosa votes to close its public beaches
Like Destin, the majority of Walton County’s beach property is privately owned.
Dr. Karen Chapman attended the Destin emergency meeting at which the vote was taken to close the beaches. As she had the prior day in front of the Okaloosa County Commission, Chapman warned that county health care services could be overwhelmed if COVID-19 can’t be held at bay.
Closing the area’s beaches, along with closing bars and limiting access to restaurants, Chapman said, could go a long way toward helping persuade the hundreds of spring breakers that have descended on the area to go home. News of beach closures could also keep would-be travelers home.
CORONAVIRUS: Walton commissioners close beaches to public for 30 days
The visitors, many from COVID-19 hotspots like Atlanta or New Orleans, have displayed a noticeable disregard for following government directives aimed at halting the spread of the disease.
"We need to re-direct social activity, and this virus couldn’t have come at a worse time for us, because it’s Spring Break," Chapman told the council.
Conspicuous by his absence Friday was Destin Mayor Gary Jarvis, a fishing captain who, Mayor Pro-Tem Prebble Ramswell announced, had booked a morning outing.
CLOSED BEACHES: The county has voted to close public county beaches and public beach access points. The pier on Okaloosa Island will only allow fishing. #destin #destinflorida #okaloosa #fortwaltonbeach https://t.co/JUIlbmAZE9— Destin, Florida (@CityofDestin) March 19, 2020
Jarvis had been in attendance the day before at the Okaloosa County Commission meeting and stated, "as a private citizen and business owner," his opposition to closing beaches.
He argued that the cost of shutting down a tourism-based economy was higher than attempting to slow the spread of a disease the government knows it can’t ultimately stop.
"You’re not taking the welfare of the entire community into account," Jarvis told the commission Thursday. "If you close the beaches you do it at the expense of the vast majority of the rest of the residents of Okaloosa County."
Councilman Steven Menchel said the mayor’s absence was disappointing.
"Whether right or wrong, the perception is that the mayor showed a lack of interest for the citizens of Destin during an emergency situation," he said.
Like the commissioners, council members faced protests from area residents over closing the beaches.
"I urge you not to destroy our economy," resident Claude Perry said.
The lengthiest discussion, though, centered around the topic of ordering private beach owners, including condominium and hotel owners, to shut off visitor access to the coastline.
Councilman Parker Destin agreed with Morgan that asking some private owners for voluntary compliance to the shutdown order would prove fruitless.
"It neuters my motion to add voluntary compliance," Morgan said when a voluntary compliance amendment was offered. "We need to take a strong stand and say the beaches are closed. It’s the right thing to do."
Okaloosa County Commissioner Nathan Boyles had argued Thursday that the county should shut down private portions of its beaches. The suggestion was shot down as fellow commissioners cited legal concerns.