Governments talk about how to reopen the beaches

  • A rare sight – a deserted beach on Amelia Island – will remain the norm for at least the next few weeks. City and county officials believe beach closures have helped “flatten the curve” of the spread of the coronavirus. JULIA ROBERTS/NEWS-LEADER
    A rare sight – a deserted beach on Amelia Island – will remain the norm for at least the next few weeks. City and county officials believe beach closures have helped “flatten the curve” of the spread of the coronavirus. JULIA ROBERTS/NEWS-LEADER

Several city and county officials took part in a conference call Monday afternoon to discuss how, and when, to reopen the beaches on Amelia Island.

Local beaches will not be opening in the foreseeable future, but Danny Leeper, chairman of the Nassau County Board of County Commissioners, said the purpose of the conference call was not to reopen the beaches, but to look ahead at what the opening of the beaches “might look like.” He said the opening should be done in stages with cooperation from all local agencies involved.

“This is not about opening the beaches immediately – today, or even next week, or maybe even next month,” Leeper said. “Our priority is to protect the public, but also to give our residents hope that your elected officials are doing all we can to bring some type of gradual return to normal life, whatever that might look like in the future. The goal is to have some concerted effort with our neighboring agencies that we all can agree on and not just one decision maker. Quite frankly, there’s very little regional cooperation going on at the moment.”

Fernandina Beach City Commis-sioner Chip Ross, who is an emergency room doctor, gave four benchmarks he believes should be met before beaches open again. He said local beaches should not open until all beaches in Northeast Florida, including the state parks on Amelia Island, are opened.

“If one opens and the other one doesn’t, I think the capillary reaction would be chaos or overloading that area,” he said.

Ross said the Florida Department of Health issued a public advisory when the beaches closed that said all people over the age of 65 should stay at home. That advisory, he said, should be lifted before local beaches are opened, as well as the ban on the public use of restaurants in Florida.

Ross added he wants Dr. Eugenia Ngo-Seidel, director of the Florida Department of Health – Nassau County, to issue a public statement indicating when open access to the beaches is safe and meets the standard of preserving the health, safety, and welfare of the community.

However, Ngo-Seidel said she doesn’t think her department will issue a statement. She said Nassau County should use federal and state guidelines as a minimum level of safety precautions.

All the people involved in the call said that cooperation between local agencies is crucial and that the beaches should be opened incrementally.

“I have been in contact with other coastal counties in our region from Flagler to here, and the discussion has started about what will happen when we open regionally,” Nassau County Emergency Management Director Greg Foster said. “A phased opening is the general consensus, from letting people get to the beach without parking to full opening. There will be a regional plan, and if we wish to follow it, it will be discussed and ready to go.”

County Manager and Attorney Mike Mullin said the county, with help from the Amelia Island Tourist Development Council, is keeping tabs, as much as possible, on people from other regions coming into the county. Mullin also said he is looking at policies set forth in Jacksonville, although he did not say those policies would be implemented in Nassau County.

“We’ve been tracking the lodging industry and who is checking in and checking out,” Mullin said. “We have some evidence of people from New York who checked in before the governor’s order, and we’re trying to see if we need to change the order. The mayor in Jacksonville has issued an order determining which lodging establishments are essential and which guests are essential. It’s hard to discern the basis for that, but we’re looking at that.”

Also discussed are businesses that have large stores where many people could be inside. Foster said that there has been no edict from the state limiting the number of customers a store can have inside, but that some smaller local businesses have been doing so.

All those who participated in the call said they believe the beaches should stay closed for the foreseeable future.

“I think it would be foolish to open the beach any time soon,” Nassau County Sheriff Bill Leeper said. “Florida is a tourist state, Nassau is a tourist destination. People come here from all over the world, so we have to be aware of that. The majority of our citizens are following the emergency executive orders that have been put in place. We do, however, have a few that think they’re special and the order doesn’t apply to them, that we have to shoo off the beach, which creates a strain on our resources.”

“Opening the beaches at this time would be contrary to the advice of epidemiologists,” Ross said. “People need to stay home except for buying food and supplies and medical necessities.”

 “It’s critical that we don’t open the beaches up until we know we are getting the all-clear sign,” AITDC Managing Director Gil Langley said. “A misstep could hurt us more than what has occurred already.”

Also participating in the call were Assistant County Manager Taco Pope, County Maintenance and Facilities Director Doug Podiak, Nassau County Sheriff’s Office Legal Counsel Bobby Lippelman, NCSO Director of Operations Butch Osborne, and Fernandina Beach City Manager Dale Martin.