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Beaches re-opened to residents on limited basis

Tim Croft
tcroft@starfl.com
The Star

Re-opening Gulf County is underway.

The Board of County Commissioners on Tuesday voted unanimously to re-open the county’s beaches to residents during limited hours.

Those hours are 6-9 a.m. and 5-8 p.m. ET; commissioners emphasized that all times were Eastern Time.

Similar action came Tuesday in Okaloosa and Bay counties and Mexico Beach moved to limited hours over the prior week.

“We’ve been in contact with the counties in our region and we wanted to let’s do things that are fairly close but are moving down the path of re-opening,” said Assistant Administrator Warren Yeager.

Yeager said allowing residents, under a stay-at-home order for more than two weeks, to recreate on the beach, whether that is walking, running or fishing, is move back toward normalcy.

“This does give your local citizens the opportunity to recreate on the beach. Everybody is trying to do the best thing and going forward this is the best thing to do for the citizens of Gulf County,” Yeager said.

The emphasis from county health officials and commissioners was that CDC guidelines apply equally on the beach.

“Maintain social distancing, take some hand sanitizer with you and avoid touching faces,” said Sarah Hinds, Administrator for the Florida Department of Health in Gulf County.

“Social distancing will part of every phase of re-opening.”

Commissioner Ward McDaniel expressed optimism that people will adhere to the guidelines.

“We are a smaller county but we have 21 miles of beach,” McDaniel said, saying there is little the county can do about those wishing to make a day-trip from Alabama or Georgia to spend a few hours on the beach.

“But I think this would give an opportunity for locals and I think people (will follow the rules). We have all educated ourselves.”

Commissioners also emphasized this had no impact on the statewide prohibition on vacation rentals.

“The rental ban is still in place,” said Commissioner Phil McCroan.

Commissioners will also monitor the situation and left themselves leave to revisit the situation as warranted.

“I think it is a great idea and a great thing for locals,” said Commissioner David Rich, who reluctantly supported the initial closure through April 30.

Commissioner Sandy Quinn, Jr. emphasized the rules must be obeyed: once 8:01 p.m. ET arrives each day the beaches should be clear,

“We want to make sure you abide by the time you are supposed to be off the beach,” Quinn said. “And, that we abide by the CDC guidelines while we are on it.

“I want to commend the people of Gulf County. They have been doing a tremendous job. Let’s not drop our guards.”

The BOCC meeting, a reconvene of an emergency meeting to address COVID-19 originally called March 16, was broadcast by livestream with an email address established to receive comments and questions.

Commissioners began the meeting by approving the policy, which will dissipate as the virus does.

“We have already implemented most of these steps, this is just formalizing them,” said County Attorney Jeremy Novak, adding it will be weeks if not months before normalcy returns for meetings.

The main topic of any public comment was the beach closure, one requesting commissioners “respect our money and our rights.”

But for the most part, comments supported the limited re-opening of the beaches.

“The board, we are not here to take away your privileges,” McDaniel said. “Work with us.

“We have to crawl before we can walk and we need to walk before we can run. Just work with us.”

Courthouse

In another move toward normalcy, the BOCC approved targeting May 4 as a day to resume activities in the County Courthouse.

The courthouse was closed due to coronavirus but the closure work in the county’s favor in that a major water leak, and one smaller one to boot, have left much of the facility under repair.

Emergency declaration

Commissioners extended for another seven days the emergency declaration the board initially approved March 18.