When the county’s beaches opened Monday morning on a limited basis, three hours in the morning and three in the evening, things went smoothly, although the expectation is that beachgoing will soon pick up.
"Deputies said they ran off about 50 to 100 people today," said Sheriff A.J. Smith Monday evening. "Some people are mad because deputies asked them to leave. I understand people may be confused, since some beaches are open and some are closed. The signs here are big and bold, and some of them ignored it.
"We’ll be down there every time until the beaches reopen," he said.
He said deputies saw adherence to social distancing, but they expect there to be further growth in volume.
"A lot of people from other states are here already, even though the governor’s orders still call for essential travel only," said Smith.
He said he saw two cars, from Illinois and North Carolina, in the parking lot in Eastpoint where PanCare is providing testing for the coronavirus.
Smithy said the county health department has not issued a statement whether visitors from Georgia are required to quarantine, as are those from hot spots in the Northeast such as New York and Connecticut, states of substantial community spread.
"Georgia was not mentioned in the governor’s order, although at one point parts did have substantial community spread," said the sheriff.
Smith said he believed the volume of visitors will increase, and inevitably there will be more cases in the county.
"It’s only going to pick up," he said. "It’s good for business. It’s a very delicate balance.
"I’ve been working hard to keep the virus out," Smith said. "I feel the more people come, we are probably going to get some cases. I am fearful the more people who come here there’s a likelihood the disease could spread.
"Up to now we, everyone, have done a good job," he said.
County commissioners are urging both residents and visitors to adhere to social distancing protocols.
"If you’re at risk, you need to stay home, even when the place opens," said Commissioner Smokey Parrish, prior to the commission’s unanimous approval at a special meeting Thursday morning, April 30 of an ordinance to reopen the beaches daily from 6 to 9 a.m., and from 5 to 8 p.m.
"Use some practical common sense," he said. "Those are personal choices that people will have to make."
The decision was in keeping with a recommendation by County Coordinator Michael Morón for a cautious approach to undoing the more than month-old beach closures.
"This gives us a chance to have a better plan for Franklin County," he said. "This is a baby step I admit but I think it’s the way to go."
The decision differed from many of the public comments, which called for unrestricted opening of the beaches, following the lead of Bay and Gulf counties.
Parrish said he understood the need for reopening, but the situation here was different because of the larger population and the availability of services, particularly in Bay.
"We don’t have lifeguards, we don’t have a bunch of emergency management staff to help them enforce (rules)," he said. "We have Weems and that’s our savior; we don’t have a 100-bed hospital.
"We have to be cautious how we do things," Parrish said. "Open the beaches and let them roll? Where are they going to stay if there’s no rentals open? There’s no place for them to stay, nothing to eat.
"Most who don’t want beaches open, they don’t own a business," he said. "They’re withering on the vine; they want the place opened up."
Alligator Point residents requested the county keep closed beach access points in the area, to further deter day trippers, but commissioners rejected drawing up rules specific to particular beaches.
One Alligator Point resident who called, who said he had lived for more than 50 years there, said he presented to the commissioners a petition signed by about 200 citizens calling for the continued closure of beach access points.
"Our beach access points do not have public restrooms, they should be closed," he said. "There’s overwhelming support for keeping beach access points closed until we can work out a way for staged use of the beaches."
Debbie Brett, who said she owned 40 properties in the county, 16 of them between Alligator Point and Bald Point, said that she supported keeping beach access points closed to the public, and restrict the beaches to residents and guests, who have private access to the beaches..
"That will allow us to have safe distancing," she said. "The majority has followed the orders, but (those with) out-of-state and out-of-county license plates have completely ignored the barriers set up. The parking is an unsafe situation."
But Parrish rejected that argument, and the ordinance, which became effective at 12:01 a.m. Monday, called for the opening of all parking lots and beach access points throughout the county.
"You have to have a set of rules applied across the county," he said. "There can’t be a different set of rules for each individual beach."
In his opening remarks, Smith said his department would strive to have the beaches cleared when they are closed.
"I thought maybe we can get a bulldozer from the county and we can run down the beach," he joked.
"We will try our hardest to accomplish that (restricted hours) but with limited amount of resources it is tough," he said. "We have been chasing our tail with beach closures.
"We’re happy to do whatever is best for the county," he said. "It’s going to take some overtime money. I’ll probably come back and ask you for that. There’s no money for doing what they’re telling everybody at the local level to do."
Smith said the department continues to receive calls regarding beach violations as well as breaking of the governor’s order that keeps short-term rentals closed.
In one instance, deputies responded to a call concerning a large number of out-of-town visitors renting after Gov. DeSantis ordered short-term rentals close,
"But they were they were homeowners with proof they had been there quite some time," he said.