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Beaches to remain closed until at least April 9

Tim Croft
tcroft@starfl.com
The Star

They received plenty of headwind but county commissioners stood fast last Thursday and extended a March 20 closure of the county beaches until at least April 9, the Thursday prior to Good Friday.

The Board of County Commissioners is scheduled to meet in special session Tuesday at which time they may revisit the closure in light of federal and state recommendations Monday to continue social distancing through the end of the month.

Re-convening its March 18 emergency meeting called due to coronavirus, the BOCC adopted the April 9 date to align with recent decisions made by officials in Panama City and Panama City Beach.

One of the reasons cited for closing the county beaches March 20 was the closure of Bay County beaches and concern spring breakers would migrate to Gulf County.

In addition to extending the emergency declaration to close all county beaches, which commissioners noted they could amend as circumstances warrant, the board also approved a resolution.

That resolution, taking into account the “protection and well-being” of residents, reiterated the BOCC’s rationale behind closing beaches “until safe.”

The resolution, passed unanimously, also urged visitors considering coming to the area to stay home.

And, further, visitors must “self-quarantine” per CDC guidelines if traveling from areas of outbreak clusters cited by the CDC, the resolution including visitors from Georgia, New York, New Jersey, Washington, California and Louisiana.

A huge concern for county officials is a surge in county cases.

Commissioner Ward McDaniel noted that Gulf County is a “small, rural community” with more than 20 percent of its population in the high-risk pool of individuals over 65 years of age.

The medical infrastructure in this community, he added, was also constrained by the community’s size; there are no intensive care beds in the county and Ascension Sacred Heart had two ventilators, McCroan said.

“We are just trying to get through this,” McDaniel said. “If we buckle down together we can get through this.”

Health department officials were on-hand to emphasize messages about hand-washing and social distancing, adding that they are testing based on state protocols.

The target is that at-risk population.

Valuable testing kits were not intended for use on those who do not have symptoms, said Sarah Hinds, Administrator of the Florida Department of Health in Gulf and Franklin Counties.

“People need to be taking this seriously,” Hinds added. “We want to make sure our at-risk people in the community are safe. We want them to stay home.”

Both counties have yet to see a positive case, but testing has slightly increased in recent days and a look on the FDOH interactive COVID-19 map, the virus is steadily closing in from the east and west.

Commissioners also expressed displeasure with communications they received since first closing the beaches, applying plenty of “bumps and bruises,” McDaniel said.

Commissioners Sandy Quinn, Jr. and Phil McCroan were particularly agitated about those they said were putting dollars and convenience above lives.

They singled out a traveler from Tennessee who had been aggressively contacting county officials about his daughter’s inability to fish from the beach.

“Our priority first and foremost has to be the protection of the citizens of this county; that is just a fact,” McCroan said. “We can’t control what is happening in the rest of the country, but we can control what is going on in Gulf County.”

Quinn said he would not budge on beach closure until the threat of COVID-19 is gone.

“Stay home in your community,” Quinn said was his message to tourists. “We can’t support an influx of visitors.

“Until COVID-19 gets better my vote is going to be to keep the beaches closed.”

Quinn added that the vast majority of residents understand the decision to close the main attraction the county offers; it is the 10 percent in the minority who are causing the ruckus.

The emergency meeting took place before a seating arrangement that had county staff at distinct distance from each other.

Two commissioners moved off the dais to side seats to encourage social distancing.

The public is not allowed in the meeting room but may view via the Internet; local governments are adhering to state guidance on conducting meetings in the Sunshine while maintaining social distancing.

County attorney Jeremy Novak thanked the board for “practicing what you are preaching.”

During last week’s meeting, commissioners also approved approaching Mexico Beach about the interlocal agreement regarding EMS services.

As long as Mexico Beach’s beaches remain the only Panhandle beach from Escambia to Wakulla that are open, county EMS runs to the city should cease.

“We are putting our employees at risk, we are our putting all our people at risk,” said Administrator Michael Hammond.