Officials mull reopening beaches by May 1

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  • The beach on the north end of Amelia Island remained empty Tuesday morning, although city and county officials are considering what the plan to reopen the beaches would look like. They discussed a date of May 1 but no official date has been set. JULIA ROBERTS/NEWS-LEADER
    The beach on the north end of Amelia Island remained empty Tuesday morning, although city and county officials are considering what the plan to reopen the beaches would look like. They discussed a date of May 1 but no official date has been set. JULIA ROBERTS/NEWS-LEADER
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“People are getting restless.” That is the sentiment across Nassau County, the country and the world. And the debate regarding reopening the beaches here mirrors the debate around the world: Should officials begin the phased reopening of businesses, schools, and recreation facilities, or keep them closed in an attempt to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus?

City, county and state governments closed island beaches last month, and residents have remained vocal in their opinions about how they should be opened again. Some say open them altogether and trust people to follow guidelines; some say simply restrict who can be on the beach and when — even restricting use to county residents only; others want the beaches to remain closed to everyone indefinitely.

In a Monday conference call that included county and Fernandina Beach officials, Danny Leeper, chair of the Nassau County Board of County Commissioners, said people are getting restless. Some people on the call said they could be prepared to open the beaches on May 1, but officials fell short of declaring beaches will be open by that date.

Beaches in Duval and St. Johns counties are now open, though with certain restrictions. Some in Georgia have also reopened, prompting some Nassau 
residents to ask local officials to do likewise.

“I’ve talked to a couple of the hotels that have stayed open,” Amelia Island Tourist Development Council Managing Director Gil Langley said. “After hearing the beaches in Jacksonville and St. Johns have opened, they got a significant number of calls wanting to know about our beaches and asking to make reservations.”

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed Executive Order 20-103 April 10, suspending vacation rentals in the state through April 30.

In a statement released after the conference call, county Public Information Officer Sabrina Robertson said county officials were “taken by surprise last weekend when Duval County opened without communicating their plans to surrounding county governments.

“Officials had originally hoped other regional counties would work in concert to open beaches to prevent a surge to one area,” according to the statement, which said calls to county officials regarding the matter have been mixed, with half asking the beaches be reopened and half wanting them to stay closed.

Nassau County Sheriff Bill Leeper said he listened to a conference call with Gov. Ron DeSantis and believes the reopening of beaches in Duval and St. Johns counties may be part of a trend.

“ (DeSantis) is looking (at putting) together a task force to look at opening Florida in a phased process,” Leeper said. “I get the feeling it won’t be in the too distant future when things are going to start opening up a little bit.”

There were benchmarks discussed that could be used to determine when it would be prudent to open the beaches.

City Commissioner Chip Ross, a doctor in the Emergency Department at Baptist Medical Center Nassau, said one of those benchmarks could be when DeSantis signs an order reopening the two state parks on the island – Fort Clinch and Amelia Island State Park – along with a declaration from Dr. Eugenia Ngo-Seidel, the director of Florida Department of Health – Nassau, that reopening the beaches would be the right move. Ngo-Seidel was on the call but did not give her opinion on the potential of a declaration.

“We have not had any specific guidance,” Ngo-Seidel said. “The state Surgeon General’s Office has said there are discussions going on.”

Ross said Nassau County’s beaches are “a magnet,” and social distancing rules might not be enough to keep people apart.

“The more people arriving at this time, the higher the chance of spreading COVID-19 in our community. And reopening the beaches will most likely draw a large amount of people to the island,” Ross said. “Many believe that everyone using the beaches will stay far apart and there will be no increased risk of infection. From experience here and experience elsewhere, we know that at least some of the people will not maintain an appropriate distance. What percentage of people that is, we don’t know.”

The concept of opening Nassau County beaches to only Nassau County residents has been suggested on social media, but Fernandina Beach City Attorney Tammi Bach told the News-Leader that both city and county government agreed to keep the beaches accessible to the general public in order to secure federal and state funding for beach renourishment, a multi-million dollar annual project managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Ross, Leeper, and County Manager and Attorney Mike Mullin also said it could not be done since Florida’s beaches are legally open to the public.

Besides an increase in the possibility of spreading the virus among the public, officials also discussed those who would be on the front lines at the beach – lifeguards, beach rangers, and sheriff’s deputies. The rangers work under the Fernandina Beach Police Department to enforce laws on the beach.

Ross noted that lifeguards are usually high school and college students and that beach rangers have an average age of 68, putting them in a group that has a high risk of serious health issues if they develop COVID-19, the disease the novel coronavirus causes.

Sheriff Leeper said his department has received approximately 60 calls reporting people being on the beach. He said the Nassau County Sheriff’s Office has not issued any citations, only asking people to leave the beach. Fernandina Beach City Manager Dale Martin said the Fernandina Beach Police Department has also not issued citations.

Danny Leeper suggested May 1 as a target date for a “soft opening.”

“We are hopeful we can come together and start planning for a May 1 — maybe a soft reopening — maybe start the conversation, start the planning process and see how it may look going into that day so we will be ready and not have another conference call,” he said.

The Fernandina Beach Fire Department oversees the city’s lifeguards. Chief Ty Silcox said the department is moving ahead with training with the goal to have lifeguards ready to hit the beaches May 1.

“I don’t know that that will be when they are deployed,” Silcox said. “I think it comes down to when is the best and safest time to deploy those assets. I think we could come up with some other possibilities of how we could do this and what we could do once the decision is made by both commissions to open or keep the beaches closed, whatever is the choice.”

Langley said having a target date will help his organization begin to plan in conjunction with the hospitality industry, but cautioned against opening too quickly, which he said could backfire.

“From an optics standpoint, I think the worst-case scenario would be if we open them, and have to go back and close them because of something that occurred,” Langley said. “I think there is some demand in the marketplace, but I’d rather see us ... make a good decision and minimize our risk of negative push back.”

“Our residents are getting restless,” Danny Leeper said. “They are seeing what’s happening to the north and south and I’m not going to do something just because the neighbor’s doing it. I want to do it in the right way. I want to give our residents hope of what we can maybe see in the near future.”

Ross said the virus cannot be predicted, and plans should be flexible.

“We can make all the plans we want, but this virus is going to decide what it wants to do,” Ross said. “I think the number- one number we should be looking at is the rate of infection, and how opening the beaches will impact that.  When they are not going up, or are going down, then we can consider what our options are.”

The Fernandina Beach City Commission had a regular meeting scheduled for 6 p.m. April 21, which will be conducted via videoconference, at which Martin said the matter would be discussed. The BOCC scheduled a special meeting for 10 a.m. Wednesday, April 22. 

jroberts@fbnewsleader.com