CORONAVIRUS: Walton commissioners allow beach vendors to return to work

Jim Thompson
Northwest Florida Daily News

DeFUNIAK SPRINGS — Six weeks after suspending beach vending permits in an effort to help control the spread of the coronavirus, Walton County commissioners voted unanimously Tuesday to allow beach vendors to return to work effective immediately.

In addition, commissioners voted to return half of the permit fees paid by beach vendors, citing their loss of business in connection with COVID-19.

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As part of their return to work, vendors — who provide beach chairs, umbrellas, kayaks, surfboards and services like beach photography to beach-goers — will be expected to sanitize their rental items between each use, and will also be responsible for adhering to federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines on “social distancing.” That strategy calls for people to remain six feet apart, and not to gather in groups of more than 10 people.

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One group of vendors, those who provide beach bonfire services, won’t be returning to work, at least not immediately. That’s a result of a separate commission decision Tuesday to institute an outdoor burning ban put in place by commissioners Tuesday in the wake of last week’s Mussett Bayou fire. That fire, aided by dry and windy weather, scorched 343 acres in south Walton County, and destroyed 34 homes. The ban on outdoor burning will remain in effect indefinitely.

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Also not included in the amendment to the county’s local state of emergency to allow vendors to return to the beaches are special-event permits, required for beach activities such as weddings.

“We have numerous people out of work,” said Commissioner Tony Anderson, noting the impact that the county’s closing of public and private beaches, lifted May 1 after being instituted March 19, has had on vendors.

“These vendors employ a lot of people,” Anderson continued, adding that beach vendors also could serve as extra eyes on the beach, assisting county officials in ensuring that social-distancing measures are being maintained along the county’s 26 miles of public and private beaches.

“It’s time to get back to work,” said Commissioner Trey Nick.

In connection with the vote, commissioners — Commissioner Melanie Nipper was not in attendance — cautioned vendors that the amendment to the local emergency declaration could be revoked at any time.

“If it’s not working, we’ll withdraw it immediately,” Anderson said. The emergency declaration must be revisited every seven days, or can be addressed any time at a special-called commission meeting. In weeks when the commission doesn’t have a meeting scheduled, Commission Chairman Bill Chapman has been empowered to continue the emergency declaration.

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In other COVID-19-related developments Tuesday, Walton County Administrator Larry Jones told commissioners that work is under way to bring county employees back into their offices.

The current plan is to have all county employees back in their offices by May 26, the day after the Memorial Day holiday, with COVID-19 safety measures in place.

“We don’t want to put anyone in harm’s way, be that staff or citizens,” Jones said.

Also on Tuesday, Holly Holt, administrator of the Florida Department of Health in Walton County, reminded commissioners of the upcoming series of free drive-through COVID-19 testing events.

The testing, to be conducted from 9 a.m. until noon, starts Thursday at Van R. Butler Elementary School, 6694 West County Hwy 30A in Santa Rosa Beach.

Other drive-through testing opportunities, also from 9 a.m. until noon, are Saturday at the Walton County School District Bus Barn, just north of Freeport High School at 12615 U.S. Highway 331; May 19 at Gene Hurley Park, 965 Gene Hurley Road in DeFuniak Springs; and May 21 at Mossy Head School, 13270 U.S. Highway 90 in DeFuniak Springs. Testing dates are subject to change due to inclement weather.

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“This will give us a better snapshot of what we’ve got in our county” in terms of COVID-19, Holt told commissioners Tuesday.

Test results should be back within 48 to 72 hours, Holt said Tuesday, but because the county is working with a new laboratory, test recipients will be told that it could be a week before their test results are available.

The drive-through testing is being done through a partnership involving the Walton Community Health Center, Walton Emergency Management, Walton County Health Dept, South Walton Fire District, Matrix C.O.C., Walton County Office of the Sheriff Fire and Rescue, City of DeFuniak Springs, Walton County School District, Point Washington Medical Clinic and Doc Smiley's Urgent Care

In other local COVID-19 developments, a spokeswoman for Kentucky-based Signature HealthCARE, which operates Chautauqua Rehabilitation & Nursing Center in DeFuniak Springs where two COVID-19 deaths have been reported in recent days, responded to a Daily News request for comment on the second death, a 66-year-old man. The first COVID-19 victim at Chautauqua was a 94-year-old woman.

In a Tuesday email to the Daily News, Ann Wilder, communications manager for Signature HealthCARE, noted that the company has taken a facility-wide approach to testing at Chautauqua.

“From experience in using a facility-wide testing approach, we know that the first confirmed positive case numbers in a facility may be relatively low, but after all facility-wide testing results come in, the initial numbers may grow extensively, and quickly,” Wilder wrote.

As of Tuesday morning, according to Wilder, the initial batch of facility-wide tests, including the initial death, show a total of 20 positive COVID-19 resident cases and 20 positive COVID-19 staff cases at Chautauqua.

The batched results, Wilder said, are not evidence of an “outbreak” of the virus at Chautauqua, but “are the direct result of an intentional strategy to test everyone and respond in the most proactive manner possible.”