There may have been a few reservations expressed, but the Board of County Commissioners last Friday evening decided to close all county beaches for seven days.
Commissioners will evaluate the situation again Friday and continue at seven-day intervals as needed.
The decision came three days after the board formally declared a public health emergency, suspended non-essential operations and closed county buildings to the public.
Both the county and city of Port St. Joe have lost inmate crews for at least the next 30 days and the dictates coming out of Tallahassee had already constrained local government operations.
“We lost a lot of our ability to work,” Administrator Michael Hammond said during one of two emergency sessions held last week. “We are going to our best to limit public interaction with our workers.
“At some juncture our lives will get back to normalcy.”
The BOCC declared a public health state of emergency last Wednesday and are, in effect, still in emergency session mode if and when called back to session by either Hammond or board chair Commissioner Sandy Quinn, Jr.
That was the case Friday evening after a recommendation from Gov. Ron DeSantis that beaches be closed.
DeSantis’ message was that this not a time for Spring Breakers to flocking to Florida.
The BOCC was reluctant, but realistic.
“We are facing the unknown,” Quinn said. “The best way to protect (people) is to close the beaches and urge people to go home.”
Commissioner Ward McDaniel noted that many residents have yet to recover from Hurricane Michael, which struck just 16 months ago and said during a tour of the area before the meeting there were more people parked at the Port City Shopping Center and along Reid Ave. than along the beaches.
Those enjoying the beach, he added were scattered and not in large groups.
But, McDaniel added, “Sometime we have to make sacrifices.”
Sheriff Mike Harrison said he had officers on the beaches last Friday for an impromptu count.
“We counted 1,100 people on the beaches,” Harrison said, adding the count was from the county line to Indian Pass. “It amazed me there were that many people on the beach.”
Harrison added to other voices of concern over not closing the beaches after Panama City and Panama City Beach had both decided to follow the governor’s lead and close their beaches.
“We know who we draw here, we know some of their families,” Harrison said. “Bay County draws a different clientele.
“My fear is that the negative element from there would be coming here.”
Commissioner Jimmy Rogers said his constituents in District 3 were also most concerned about Bay County’s beach population moving east.
“I’m afraid their overflow will think they can just come here,” Rogers said. “The tourists need to go home.”
County attorney Jeremy Novak said that visitors must understand that Gulf is a “small, rural community” and the health resources of the county could be overwhelmed by a spike of cases in the county.
“There are legitimate public health concerns,” Novak said.
Commissioner Phil McCroan said the beaches were the county’s top attraction and the most efficient way to slow down any spread of the virus in the county would be to close the beaches.
Commissioners expressed frustration that they could not keep the beaches open to local residents, but lacked the legal ability to do so.
Commissioner David Rich also wondered if one section of beach, say Indian Pass Beach or St. Joe Beach, could remain open to locals.
“The beaches are the safest place to go if you spread out,” Rich said, saying the BOCC should look at all options before closing all beaches.
In the end, however, Rich joined the other four commissioners in voting to close the beaches, with the situation to be evaluated every seven days.
“My message to constituents and visitors is to be patient,” Quinn said. “We don’t want to close our beaches.
“But a lot of this is above our pay grade. We are trying to protect our people. This is an unknown that is taking lives.”
Commissioners also cancelled their regular monthly meeting scheduled for Tuesday.