Walton beaches could reopen on May 1, with some usage restrictions
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DeFUNIAK SPRINGS — Walton County commissioners set the stage Thursday for a Tuesday vote that could open all 26 miles of the county’s beaches on May 1, with some usage restrictions but no time-of-day limits.
The county’s beaches, public and private, have been closed since March 19 as part of the county’s effort to control the spread of COVID-19.
There were, however, some problems with some private beachfront property owners who did not voluntarily comply with the closure. That prompted commissioners to take a tougher line in an April 2 vote on an ordinance more specifically targeted at private beaches.
A number of beachfront property owners sought an exemption from that new order in federal court, but the judge declined their emergency motion. The case remains pending.
The commission’s Thursday decision to consider reopening all of the county’s beaches — public and private — came at the end of a more than three-hour meeting that was taken up mostly with public comments.
Commissioners voted unanimously to have Walton County Attorney Sidney Noyes draw up an ordinance to open all beaches, with no time-of-day limits but with limitations on activities in line with Gov. Ron DeSantis’ recent statewide “stay at home” executive order.
That order is scheduled to expire April 30, but could be extended.
County Commission Chairman Bill Chapman called for a roll-call vote, ensuring that his vote and those Commissioners Trey Nick, Danny Glidewell, Melanie Nipper and Tony Anderson were clear to the public.
Noyes will draw up a proposed ordinance that, in addition to opening all county beaches, public and private, would allow walking, jogging, fishing, swimming, sunbathing and the use of paddleboards and canoes. The ordinance proposal will, however, prohibit beach vending.
The ordinance also will lay out requirements for social distancing on the beach, in accordance with federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guiidelines. Under those guidelines, people must maintain six feet of separation and not gather in groups of more than 10.
“Social distancing is an absolute must,” Anderson said.
Commissioners will take up the proposed ordinance at their meeting at 9 a.m. Tuesday.
The Walton commission’s vote came two days after Okaloosa County commissioners voted to open that county’s beaches beginning May 1 from 6:30 a.m. to 9 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. daily, with all beach activities permitted.
Beaches in Bay County have been open since April 24, from 6-9 a.m. and 5-8 p.m. daily.
Before Thursday’s nearly two hours of public comment, Chapman said the county’s March decision to close beaches “wasn’t out of meanness, I can tell you that. ... We have done what we thought was best for the county as a whole.”
Commissioners and others pointed to the county’s low number of COVID-19 cases as evidence that the beach closure has worked to limit the spread of the illness and has given the county a little room to ease restrictions.
As of Thursday, there were 32 recorded cases in Walton County, as opposed to 137 cases in Okaloosa County and 60 in Bay County.
But even as they moved to reopen the beaches, some commissioners and Sheriff Michael Adkinson, whose deputies enforce local ordinances and state orders related to controlling COVID-19, expressed some concern about what might happen if DeSantis lifts the current statewide ban on short-term vacation rentals.
The ban is slated to expire April 30, which has created some concern that the county could be flooded with vacationers, many of them coming from areas where COVID-19 is more widespread.
“You only get once chance to do this right,” Adkinson suggested to commissioners before the vote.
If the ban is lifted, “you’re going to see an exponential increase in the number of people coming here,” Adkinson said.
That is one reason the commission will consider having no time restrictions on beach access in order to keep beaches from becoming overcrowded during certain times.
“So much rides on what the governor does,” Adkinson told commissioners.
Among the string of people offering public comment, both in the commission chambers and via the teleconference link to the meeting, was a woman who said opening the beaches “will improve our morale. ... We desperately need to start turning this around.”
On the other side was a woman who was laid off from work five weeks ago because of COVID-19. She told commissioners she wants to go back to work, but added, “I don’t want to do so at the expense of the health of the people of my community” if beaches are reopened and crowds flock to the county.
Commissioners also heard Thursday from people who vacation in the area. Kenny Ballas of Gwinett County, Georgia, has local accommodations rented for June and told commissioners there is “no way I’m coming down there if the beaches aren’t open all day long.”