The Board of County Commissioners extended its March emergency declaration last week while also adding a ban on all outdoor burning.
The action, during a reconvening of a March 18 emergency meeting, came after Gov. Ron DeSantis issued an executive stay-at-home order for all of Florida, providing exceptions for essential services ranging from grocery stores to construction.
Given the governor’s executive action, County Administrator Michael Hammond said the board needed “to tighten down a bit more.”
For starters, Hammond said, echoing words spoken by Commission Chair Sandy Quinn, Jr. during prior emergency sessions, said visitors need to go home.
Beaches are closed statewide, including, as of last week, Mexico Beach.
And while the vast majority of vacation-rental owners heeded an executive order from DeSantis ceasing vacation rentals in the state, Hammond said there were still vacationers checking into Gulf County the prior Saturday.
“They need to go home,” Hammond said. “If you are not from Gulf County you need to go home and shelter at home.
“Most people are following the rules, at great expense. It is not fair to those following the rules.”
In addition, commissioners approved closing to the public all county buildings and leaving only essential personnel in place.
Some functions of the Clerk of Courts must continue and constitutional officers have the authority to determine what is essential within their offices.
But on the whole, Hammond said, county offices were closed to the public.
“Everything that we could call normal operations have been suspended,” Hammond said.
Probation services and payments can be completed by phone, online, mail or via the drop box in front of the courthouse, Hammond said.
The closing of county buildings includes the two public libraries.
The libraries operate within a regional system and had been providing limited “curb” service for patrons, but commissioners voted to close the buildings entirely.
“It is imperative they cease interactions with the public,” Hammond said.
The county also closed St. Joseph Bay Golf Club last week; construction work on greens has begun in addition to the pandemic.
The Building Department will not be issuing new permits for the next couple of weeks, Hammond said, but inspections would continue as normal.
The county boat ramps are open for residents, Hammond said.
“Everybody is being inconvenienced,” Quinn said. “We just have to deal with it until we get through this.”
Commissioners have fielded complaints about various closures, particularly the beaches.
Sheriff Mike Harrison said his deputies were being kept busy on the beaches, but overall compliance among residents has been good.
County Attorney Jeremy Novak noted that violations of the governor’s executive orders, which underpin the measures passed thus far by the BOCC, are a second-degree misdemeanor.
Violations carry penalties up to 60 days in a jail and a $500 fine.
At this point deputies are issuing “notices to appear” to violators; the individuals will have to appear before the county judge at some future date.
“You are simply trying to protect the people of Gulf County,” Novak said. “Everything (that has been passed) has been premised on protecting the people of Gulf County.
“That may not matter to one person on the beach, but it matters to the rest of the people who live here.”
Commissioners heeded a request from the Florida Division of Forestry to institute a ban on outdoor burning until further notice.
The ban does not include barbecue cooking.
Commissioner Ward McDaniel said Gulf was currently the driest county in Northwest Florida and one of the driest in the state.
“Gulf County is a potential hot spot,” McDaniel said.
And the Division of Forestry has been kept busy in the county.
The Beaches Volunteer Fire Department assisted the Division in two wildfires in the past couple of weeks and McDaniel noted a recent wildfire near Five Acres Farms that Forestry was able to extinguish before the damage was extensive.