BOCC decides to reopen county beaches today

  • Gov. Ron DeSantis. THE FLORIDA CHANNEL
    Gov. Ron DeSantis. THE FLORIDA CHANNEL

The Nassau County Board of County Commissioners voted Wednesday to move the reopening of the county’s beaches to Friday, May 1, at 6 a.m. The board voted last week to open on May 6, but they also said it could happen earlier.

The BOCC decision came after Gov. Ron DeSantis held a press conference Wednesday afternoon to explain his “Phase 1” plan to ease restrictions put in place to protect public health and slow the spread of the virus that causes COVID-19.

There will be no restrictions on the personal activities allowed on the county’s beach except for group sports. Beachgoers will be required to stay six feet apart from other people and not gather in groups of more than 10; otherwise, they are allowed to swim and surf as they please, or exercise, sit, and fish on the “sandy wet portions and dry portions of the Atlantic Ocean beach,” according to the resolution, but only between 6 a.m. and 9 p.m. for now.

Parking lots at the county’s beach accesses will also be closed from 9:01 p.m. until 6 a.m. until further notice.

Driving on the county’s beach to park is still prohibited at this time. Public safety, “public necessity,” and other vehicles permitted by the county manager, such as the turtle patrol, should be the only ones on the county’s beach until further notice. The city’s beach parking access using the Sadler Road entrance is also still closed.

Commercial activities such as horseback riding are still prohibited, but will be reviewed every seven days in conjunction with the review of the county’s state of emergency.

A violation of the county’s order will subject the violator to a second-degree misdemeanor with a penalty of 60 days in jail and/or a $500 fine. The order expires at the end of the emergency.

A news conference was scheduled for Thursday afternoon where Nassau County Emergency Management Director Greg Foster would go over additional details including “handing out masks to residents (Friday) morning at Peter’s Point beach access and a ‘Recovery Information Fair’ to be held next week to allow residents to obtain information and help from representatives of Nassau County elected government offices.”

As of Thursday afternoon, the beaches at Fort Clinch State Park and Amelia Island State Park remained closed. A “phased-in” reopening of state parks is expected from the Department of Environmental Protection. 

The county board’s unanimous decision came after an announcement earlier Wednesday that the city of Fernandina Beach would reopen its beaches at 6 a.m. Monday, May 4. The hours and activities at the city’s beaches will not be restricted, according to City Manager Dale Martin, but social distancing will be required.

Last week, the county commissioners said they were coordinating the beach re-openings with the city of Fernandina Beach and the state since all three control beaches on the island. Asked Thursday afternoon why the county picked May 1, County Manager and Attorney Mike Mullin said that would be a question for each commissioner, but they knew the city was opening on May 4 when they voted. “Their goal was to see if they could be the same day or within a couple of days,” Mullin said.

Martin said in an email Thursday morning he was unsure about why the county revised its plans from opening in conjunction with state parks, to opening May 6, to opening on May 1. Martin described the county’s announcements on the dates as unilateral.

Asked why the city chose May 4, Martin said it was the “earliest availability of Ocean Rescue personnel due to hiring and training requirements.”

“Ocean Rescue training is scheduled this afternoon and tomorrow afternoon on the beaches if you receive reports of beach activity. In order to maintain the appropriate level of lifeguard certification, open water training is required.”

Martin added that Monday is “likely to be less busy than the weekend” and provides additional days for preparations, including “positioning of Ocean Rescue towers, scheduling of Beach Rangers, coordination at the Golf Course, removal of parking barricades.”

Also going into the city’s decision-making process, “availability of parking ... generated the most internal discussion,” Martin said. “Do we not open the parking to discourage out-of-town visitors or do we open parking to prevent parking sprawl in neighborhoods? With many of the area beaches now open, the feared ‘crush’ of visitors MAY not happen. We’ll observe and react accordingly.”

In response to a question about whether the CDC guideline to wear masks in public was ever discussed, Martin wrote: “I agree that the use of masks is only sporadically observed. No City Commission discussion has addressed that issue (and the Governor has only encouraged the use of masks in public, not required such use).”

Asked why the city’s restrooms won’t be open, Martin wrote: “Although I do cite the sanitary issue for not opening the bathrooms (fixtures and surfaces would have to be continuously cleaned), the lack of bathrooms may also inhibit long-duration visits to the beaches. Nearly every comment directed to the City Commissioners indicated a strong desire to go to the beach for exercise purposes, not to bake for hours. This may encourage such shorter uses and reduce the opportunity for gatherings. Again, this is an ever-changing environment and we’ll respond and adapt accordingly.”

The state’s phased approach to opening Florida’s businesses will start Monday for most counties. Dade, Palm Beach and Broward counties, where most of the state’s COVID-19 cases have been reported, will remain under tighter controls for now, DeSantis said Wednesday.

According to his “Phase 1” plan, people in Florida should continue to avoid socializing in groups of more than 10 people, and vulnerable individuals, such as the elderly and those with serious health issues, “should avoid close contact with people outside the home.” DeSantis recommends wearing a facemask for “face-to-face” situations.

Elective surgeries can now resume. The surgeries had been suspended to keep Florida’s hospital capacity at a maximum in case there were many more COVID-19 patients. “We did a good job,” DeSantis said Wednesday about keeping the beds open in anticipation of a worse outbreak.

Visits to senior living facilities are still restricted, DeSantis said, noting, “This thing spreads like wildfire if it gets in there.”

Restaurants can seat patrons outdoors as long as there is a 6-foot space between tables. Restaurants must limit their indoor seating capacity to 25%. There has been no change in the governor’s order for bars, gyms, and personal services like hairdressers to stay closed. DeSantis did say he is looking at “weeks, not months” to lift those restrictions.

Retail establishments can only use 25% of their indoor customer capacity.

DeSantis added that the state’s testing will now focus on underserved communities, and encouraged all residents to go get tested at one of the free drive-thru testing sites, such as the one in Jacksonville at TIAA Bank Field’s parking lot J. A Tweet sent Thursday by the City of Jacksonville said “ANYONE regardless of age or symptoms can now be tested at this location. Drive-thru, no appointment and it’s FREE! Max 5 people per vehicle, must have working A/C and windows that open and fully close. Adults need a valid photo ID. Under 18 must have a parent or guardian.”

The state and local announcements Wednesday came after the Florida Department of Health Nassau received “three new cases with positive COVID-19 testing in Nassau residents” on Wednesday morning, according to a Facebook post from Nassau County Emergency Manage-ment. “The first case is a 46-year-old male with no travel-related exposure and with known contact to a confirmed case. The second case is a 37-year-old male with known contact to a confirmed case and with travel-related exposure. The third case is a 28-year-old female with no travel related exposure and no known contact to a confirmed case. The Health Department is conducting case investigation and contact tracing on these cases. The individuals will remain in isolation until released by public health. This brings the total case count to date to fifty-six (54 residents and 2 non-residents) for Nassau County. As of this date, 31 individuals have been released from isolation.”

Among the board’s other business Wednesday, the county’s state of emergency was extended for another week, and a $41,600 donation to the Nassau County Council on Aging was unanimously approved “to assist feeding residents during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The board also recognized Mrs. Joan Bean with a resolution noting Bean’s contributions to the community. Bean died last week at the age of 94.