By DOTTY NIST
Holding emergency sessions on March 18 and March 19 at the Walton County Courthouse, the Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) voted on March 19 to approve an ordinance closing the beaches in Walton County to the general public.
The sessions were scheduled on March 18 after the BCC, in conjunction with the Florida Department of Health (FDOH) in Walton County, received confirmation of a positive test for COVID-19 in Walton County.
(As of March 24, the number of positive tests for the respiratory virus had increased to nine in Walton County.)
Appearing before the officials at the March 18 session was Holly Holt, administrator for the FDOH in Walton County. Holt commented that the person confirmed as positive for COVID-19 was a non-Florida resident.
Asked about the number of intensive care unit (ICU) beds and ventilators in Walton County, Holt responded that there were 22 ICU beds at Sacred Heart Hospital on the Emerald Coast and 11 ventilators. She said there were six ICU beds at Healthmark Regional Medical Hospital and two ventilators.
She said FDOH in Walton County had been working very hard in cooperation with Walton County Emergency Management to get more equipment and resources into the county for response to the pandemic, and she anticipated that these would be coming soon.
South Walton Fire District is responsible for Walton County’s beach safety/lifeguard program. SWFD Chief/Administrator Ryan Crawford spoke about the large number of people on the beach/crowding on the beach, including tourists, and brought up concerns about health risks to lifeguards in view of the national COVID-19 outbreak.
Holt also brought up the risk to the health of the public posed by the fact that many of the tourists coming to Walton County and to the beach come from “hot spots” for the virus.
District 3 Commissioner Melanie Nipper brought up the fact that a number of areas in Florida, including Miami and Fort Lauderdale, had closed their beaches to prevent spread of the virus.
In response to a question, Walton County Tourist Development Council (TDC) Executive Director Jay Tusa said the TDC had not been advertising for several weeks to bring people to the beaches. He quantified occupancy of short-term rentals in south Walton County at 86 percent.
District 4 Commissioner Trey Nick raised concern about economic impacts if Walton County were to close the beaches.
District 5 Commissioner Tony Anderson described himself as “the biggest pro-business person on the board,” but questioned whether the BCC would want to fail to take action if closing the beach could reduce the spread of the virus. He asked if they would want to face, for example, a spring breaker catching the virus and taking it back to a parent in Tennessee or another state.
District 2 Commissioner Danny Glidewell called closing the beaches “serious business” and observed that it would also result in shutting down tourism, which one in three people in Walton County depends on to make a living.
Glidewell said he had not been in favor of closing the beaches four or five days ago—but that he had become aware that beachgoers were not paying attention to DOH instructions to limit groups on the beaches to no more than 10 persons and to distance themselves from others by six feet.
“We gave them every chance,” Glidewell said. He said he was not confident that beachgoers would behave as they should in the interest of public health and safety in connection with the virus outbreak.
The commissioners voted 5-0 to direct the county attorney to draw up an emergency ordinance to close the beaches in Walton County, with the ordinance to be brought before them for consideration the following morning, March 19, at 9 a.m.
The emergency session was recessed until that time.
Walton County Attorney Sidney Noyes presented the draft ordinance at the March 19 session.
The ordinance acknowledged an emergency situation to be in existence on the beaches “due to the overwhelming crowds,” that was likely to lead to the spread of COVID-19. It stated that immediate enactment of an emergency ordinance was necessary to prevent the spread of the virus.
The ordinance specified that the temporary closure of the beaches in response to this public health emergency “shall not be construed as an abandonment of the public’s right to use the dry sand areas of the beaches.”
With an effective date of March 19 and set up to remain in effect for 30 days, the ordinance provided: “All beaches within Walton County, Florida, are temporarily CLOSED to the public.”
The term “beach” in the ordinance was defined as, “the soft sandy portion of land lying seaward of the seawall or the line of permanent dune vegetation.”
The ordinance stated that it was unlawful (under its terms) for members of the public to access the beaches in Walton County, with violation of the ordinance to constitute a criminal offense.
After a motion for approval and a second, discussion on the ordinance indicated that it would not bar property owners who own to the mean high water line from being on their beach property. On the issue of beachfront property owners allowing guests or tourists onto their beach property, Noyes indicated that, although the ordinance would apply to any member of the public on the beach other than a beachfront owner on their own property, keeping members of the public off privately-owned beach property would be “on” the property owners.
In response to what the situation would be with state parks within the county with beachfront areas, Noyes responded these areas are under the authority of state agencies rather than the BCC.
(On March 19, the state Department of Environmental Protection ordered the beachfront parks in Walton County closed and on March 23 all state parks were closed in connection with the pandemic.)
The ordinance was approved in a 5-0 vote, with Walton County Sheriff Mike Adkinson to take the leadership role in enforcement of the ordinance.
In a press conference joint press conference with Chief Crawford later in the day on March 19, Adkinson spoke about the ordinance and answered questions. He said the Walton County Sheriff’s Office (WCSO) would be working in partnership with the BCC, Walton County Code Enforcement, the TDC, the SWFD, and Walton County Fire Rescue personnel to enforce the ordinance closing the beaches.
He commented that a common sense approach would be taken, an educational effort conducted, and that the goal would be to obtain voluntary compliance with the ordinance, including on privately-owned beach property. Adkinson explained that, under the ordinance, the public would not be able to customarily traverse private beach property.
Crawford pledged that SWFD lifeguards would be instrumental in ensuring that the beaches are closed.
Adkinson noted that signs would be going up at public beach access points closing those off to the beach.
Tusa sent out a March 19 message to Walton County tourism partners, TDC council and committee members discussing the BCC decision to close the beaches. “Board members struggled with this decision and acknowledged the devastating effects this will have for our local economy and jobs, but voted to pass the measure in hopes of saving lives of locals and visitors,” Tusa wrote.
“The action goes into effect immediately,” he continued, “and although owners of private beach still have legal access to their own property, board members are urging them to abide by the spirit of safety and caution they are putting forth county-wide.”
“The Walton County TDC will begin spreading this message immediately, and physically closing all beach accesses early tomorrow morning,” Tusa wrote, expressing a commitment to help tourism partners in any way possible during this emergency.
Signs and barriers closing public beach accesses were put in place on March 20, and a number of resorts and large beachfront properties announced closures.
The ordinance closing the beaches went into effect immediately and is to remain in place for 30 days unless subsequent action is taken by the BCC.