By Mary Hladky
Palm Beach County commissioners voted 5-2 on May 15 to reopen county beaches on Monday, May 18.
But in a significant change from a May 8 preliminary commission decision, beach use will not be restricted to county residents.
The county can legally prevent residents of other counties from using its beaches, County Attorney Denise Nieman said. But she recommended against doing so because many of the county’s beaches have received grants for beach restoration and other improvements. The grant agreements include clauses that prohibit restrictions on who can use the beaches, she said.
Martin County was able to restrict access to its beaches based on residency after receiving permission to waive provisions of the grant agreements. But Palm Beach County has many more grant agreements than does Martin County and is not able to get provision waivers for all of them, Nieman said.
Concessions will be open at the beaches, another reversal from the commission’s May 8 decision.
Commissioners heard comments from about 25 residents before their vote, virtually all strongly in favor of beach reopening.
But Palm Beach County is acting ahead of Broward and Miami-Dade counties, which have not set a date yet for reopening their beaches. Broward County Mayor Dale V.C. Holness has said that beaches will remain closed until at least May 26.
That raises the risk that Palm Beach County beaches will be overwhelmed if Broward and Miami-Dade residents rush north to get on a beach, especially over Memorial Day weekend.
County Administrator Verdenia Baker said the county's southern cities had urged that Palm Beach County reopen beaches at the same time as Miami-Dade and Broward to avoid this problem.
The county's northern cities supported the May 18 opening.
Lifeguards also wanted Palm Beach County to act in concert with its southern neighbors. Lifeguards and other county employees will be tasked with making sure that social distancing rules are enforced on the beach. They also must prevent gatherings on the beach of more than 10 people.
Lifeguards have objected to becoming rule enforcers, saying their job is to conduct beach rescues and provide medical attention. They made their position known to a county reopening task force.
All public and private beaches will be open from sunrise to sunset. An exception was made for the county's South Inlet Park in Boca Raton because it is close to the county line.
Commissioners Gregg Weiss and Mack Bernard voted against the opening.
Weiss said he recently visited a beach in Jupiter and saw that many people were not practicing social distancing.
“Unfortunately, we have a portion of our population who wants to put everyone at risk,” he said.
Commissioner Robert Weinroth, who represents southeastern Palm Beach County, strongly supported reopening and said residents should be trusted to do the right thing.
“We need to set policy that is for the greater good and not worry about outliers,” he said.
Shortly after county commissioners voted, Boca Raton announced that its beaches would be open to the public from sunrise to sunset on May 18. However, lifeguards will not be on duty, so beach-goers will swim at their own risk.
While the public can use the beach, beach parks will be closed. That includes parking, restrooms, playgrounds and picnic pavilions.
City Council members had agreed in advance of the County Commission decision that beach parks would remain closed as a way of preventing people from crowding onto the beaches, which they feared would happen if Palm Beach County opened beaches while Broward's remained closed.
Parking is prohibited along State Road A1A in Boca Raton.