By Mary Hladky
Palm Beach County commissioners, by a 4-3 margin, voted to reopen the county's beaches to county residents on May 18.
The May 8 decision is preliminary, with the commission agreeing to meet again on May 15 to finalize the plan for beach openings.
While it is possible commissioners could change their minds, that seemed unlikely after they negotiated among themselves to craft an order that a majority could accept.
Both public and private beaches would be allowed to reopen from sunrise to sunset. Beach-goers will have to abide by social distancing guidelines and gatherings would be limited to 10 people. Concession facilities will not be open.
But only Palm Beach County residents will be able to use them, as commissioners attempted to ward off an influx of beach-goers from Broward and Miami-Dade counties where beaches remain closed.
County and municipal law enforcement officers will enforce the order. Cities and towns, however, have the authority to decide they do not want to reopen.
The action marks the second step to ease the lockdown that has kept county residents largely confined to their homes because of COVID-19. The county reopened parks, golf courses and marinas on April 30.
Separately, Gov. Ron DeSantis announced in West Palm Beach that restaurants and some nonessential retail businesses can reopen May 11 with those in Broward and Miami-Dade counties to follow on May 18. Restaurants can offer outdoor seating with 6 feet of social distancing and indoor seating at 25% capacity.
Palm Beach County had asked DeSantis to lift the restrictions as he already had for 64 of Florida's 67 counties. But the governor placed greater restrictions on Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties because the three have more than half of the state's coronavirus cases.
County commissioners took the action on reopening beaches even though health director Dr. Alina Alonso had recommended against it. She warned earlier this week that reopening too soon risks a resurgence of the disease.
“Our own health department is telling us not to do it,” said Commissioner Gregg Weiss, who along with Mack Bernard and Mary Lou Berger voted against the reopening.
County Mayor Dave Kerner cast the deciding vote. “My intent is I want people to go to the beach,” he said.
Commissioner Robert Weinroth, who represents the coastal South County, was the strongest proponent of beach reopening.
“It is the right time,” he said. “There is no reason our residents can’t act responsibly.”