Hoping to avoid what turned out to be inevitable, county commissioners met twice this past weekend before voting unanimously Sunday afternoon to close county beaches until at least Friday at 7 p.m.
Commissioners are expected to meet, likely by telephone, before then to decide on a possible extension.
The ban includes all beaches, including Dog Island, in the county, including both public and private stretches of beach, beach access and all boardwalks and walkways. This does not include river banks, many of which are now flooded.
An ordinance drafted by County Attorney Michael Shuler provides for enforcement by the sheriff’s office.
He said homeowners, as well as renters, will continue to have access to their private beachfront property, which can extend no further to the water than the mean high tide mark. The legislation is designed to limit access to that property by any visitors who do not reside there, either permanently or temporarily.
Violation of these rules is a second degree misdemeanor, punishable by up to a $500 fine and time in jail.
Sheriff A.J. Smith said his deputies have encountered mainly compliance by local residents and visitors, and urged people to exercise good judgment in abiding by the ordinance.
The motion by Ricky Jones, and seconded by Bert Boldt, was met with no opposition by his colleagues. Several people, mainly representing business interests on St. George Island, spoke out against it, as they had at the meeting Saturday.
"The governor has shut down all state parks," said Jones. "We have to respond. We’re elected officials, we can’t take it lightly. We have to make decisions."
The commissioners on Sunday heard urgent appeals from the community, led by Apalachicola city commissioner Adriane Elliott, for a complete closure. At an emergency meeting Saturday morning, commissioners had voted to leave beaches open, but close off public parking to them,.
"You have got one of the most precarious situations in the last 100 years, since yellow fever epidemic that wiped out St. Joseph," she said. " Think about the situation the entire world is in."
By a 4-1 vote, with Chairman Noah Lockley opposed, the county on Saturday had ordered closure of the public parking lots in the center of St. George Island, as well as parking at any of the beach access points.
In addition, the public parking area at Carrabelle Beach were closed, as well as any areas on Alligator Point frequently used by beachgoers.
"Parking in the right-of-way is supposed to be illegal to begin with," said County Coordinator Michael Morón.
Smith and deputies immediately began clearing the public lots, and a furious discussion erupted on social media over the wisdom of the commissioners’ decision.
As the lone nay vote, Lockley had preferred the county go along with the other Panhandle beaches to the west, all of which had ordered a week-long closure..
"We’re putting a dollar over health," he said.
The board heard first from Eastpoint business owner Rex Pennycuff, and then Julie Krontz, representing the island’s business association, who each made a strong case for weighing the impact both on the county’economy, as well as public health.
Krontz reiterated her position on Sunday, stressing that if she and others felt that keeping beaches open was contributing to the spread of the coronavirus, they would not hesitate to support closure. In addition, she asked commissioners to weigh the impact on workers from throughout the county that depend on income from tourists and snowbirds.
Pennycuff urged caution with the "steps you take and the wording you use.
"Today you are taking steps to go beyond what the governor’s done. We are a tourist-based economic community. Anything you do, that will impact (businesses’) ability to pay taxes and pay their employees," he said.
Pennycuff, who owns Eastpoint’s most prominent fish and tackle shop, said closure of several weeks could have curtail 12 to 15 percent of his income for a year.
He said government efforts of "trying to do a slow curve" with the growth of cases from the COVID-19 pandemic, which he heard estimated would peak in July, means this will impact businesses for the next four to five months,
"This could impact me for the next 18 months, and I would be unable to make a profit in my business," Pennycuff said.
"I understand people are scared about this," he said. "The problem is I have to show up and go to work, I have to eat, and I have to at the end of the day trust that God will see me through it.
"If you are in favor of a quarantine, you can quarantine yourself," Pennycuff said. "I will not come to your door."
Krontz focused on the effect beach closure would have on "health and protecting people," and then described the island as a place suitable for "allowing people to isolate and quarantine.
"We don’t have the big condos," she said. "Our island allows people to isolate.
"We believe there’s a solution that we can all win this," Krontz said, before presenting the suggestion the public beach area in the center of the island be closed,
"You eliminate the day trippers," and don’t impact people staying in houses, she said. "You also avoid the unintended consequence you're going to cause if you close the entire beach.
"You’’re going to force people into bike paths, to the middle of the island, to the bay, which is going to make it much more congested," Krontz said.
She said what is happening on the island is that people are adhering to the "keep a safe distance" recommendations,
"They are doing the right things, following all the rules," said Krontz, noting that businesses are packed, for take-out and delivery.
"This is going to solve the problem, and is easy to enforce," she said. "And still allow people to have space to get away from each other."
The commission also heard from Alice Collins, Michael Sparks, Beth Brinkley, Randy Collins, Carla Galloway, Stacy Burch and Doc Myers.
"The major message was that ’don’t close it today, give it a week’s heads up,’ so they can tell prospective renters," said Morón. "Some were ’don’t close it at all."
In his report, Morón said Smith and Tourist Development Council staff monitoring St. George Island beaches found large numbers of beachgoers adhering to Gov. Ron DeSantis’ orders not to exceed groups of 10 and maintain a safe distance of at least six feet.
"However, as of yesterday evening, Gulf County, Bay County, Panama City Beach, and other counties further west have closed their beaches for at least one week," Morón said, in his recommendation for closure. "There is a real possibility that our beaches will become very inundated with visitors which would create health, safety, and other issues."
Commissioners canceled the April 7 county commission regular meeting, and the April 1 board of adjustment and April 14 planning and zoning meeting. They also granted Morón authority to pay county bills.
Weems Memorial Hospital CEO David Walker received permission to purchase as many as six ventilators for the ambulance service, which had been slated to use ventilators housed inside the hospital.
The total price for the four ventilators and accessories, from Philips Healthcare of Andover, Massachusetts, that Walker initially asked for is right at about $57,001, after discounts.
Walker report that through the FEMA COVID-19 Category B Public Assistance Program, Weems will be reimbursed up to 75 percent of the cost for the four ventilators. This means that for these ventilators, FEMA will pay $42,638 and Weems around $14,213 after the reimbursement.
Morón said Walker told commissioners that Weems is about a week or two away from receiving the ventilators.
"This is not a scare tactic," Lockley said. "We’e just doing this just in case. There are no cases in Franklin County."
Walker said with the advent of greater testing statewide, more cases are likely to emerge. "You’ll probably see some positive cases," he said,
"Like the Boys Scouts thing, it a ’Be Prepared’ situation," said Lockley.
On Sunday, Jones noted that the governor may well opt to direct ill patients from other parts of the state to available resources elsewhere. "We could have three tomorrow if the state sends them here," he said. "We have no say-so in that matter."
Richard Lewis, head of the Weems ambulance service, said he has asked first responders throughout the county not to respond to calls, and that EMS would handle all instances of an emergency nature.
"From now through the duration, we will be responding to whoever calls 911," he said. "I have been encouraging all first responders to only respond to all calls that are absolutely necessary."
He also said health officials are working to make sure the county continues to have enough masks and gloves. "We don’t have enough personal protection equipment to go around to everybody.," he said.