Morgan Didio, a student at Lynn University, walks with her friend Emma Fleurian, a student at FAU, along the beach at South Beach Park in Boca Raton the morning of May 18, the day Palm Beach County reopened the beaches. They were closed for weeks because of the deadly coronavirus pandemic. Tim Stepien/The Coastal Star
Pressure to unlock coast, boost jobs outweighs risk of surge in virus
Related: Rules for the beach
By Mary Hladky
As Palm Beach County officials took the first steps toward rolling back coronavirus closures in late April, they started with recreational facilities such as parks and golf courses.
They then asked Gov. Ron DeSantis in early May to lift special restrictions placed on the county so restaurants and retail stores could reopen with capacity restrictions. DeSantis agreed, and also ended the closure of hair and nail salons and barber shops.
But beaches remained on the still-closed list, despite clamoring from the public to use the state’s most treasured resource.
That finally changed May 15 when county commissioners voted 5-2 to ratify an earlier decision to reopen public and private beaches on May 18, with beach-goers required to practice social distancing.
“We need to set policy that is for the greater good and not worry about outliers,” said Commissioner Robert Weinroth.
So why didn’t beaches open sooner? The county didn’t need DeSantis’ permission to reopen them. He had issued an executive order in March that extended beach closures but gave Palm Beach and Broward county administrators the authority to open them up.
County commissioners, however, faced a complex situation and were juggling competing demands.
Backdrop of death remains
Although some state data showed a decrease in hospital admissions and other positive signs that the rate of COVID-19 infections had stabilized or was in decline, the number of cases and deaths in the state and county continues to rise.
As of May 19, the state had 46,944 coronavirus cases, 502 more than the day before and 2,806 more than on May 15. Palm Beach County had 4,699 cases, up 41 from the day before and up 308 from May 15. The state’s death toll was 2,052, and the county’s was 284.
With DeSantis continuing to lift South Florida restrictions, some county commissioners were hesitant to further relax rules and risk a surge of new cases, possibly stretching hospitals — still struggling to obtain enough personal protective equipment — to the breaking point.
Disturbing images of people massing on Jacksonville and Naples beaches when they opened gave commissioners another concern. But Dr. Scott Rivkees, Florida’s surgeon general, has said he did not see an increased number of coronavirus cases resulting from Jacksonville’s mid-April beach reopening.
Yet Dr. Alina Alonso, health director in Palm Beach County, has urged commissioners to be cautious, saying in early May that reopening too soon or without proper protocols could cause a spike in cases.
At the same time, many laid-off or furloughed workers desperately needed to return to work, and businesses faced the prospect of shuttering for good.
And county residents going stir-crazy in their homes badly wanted a return to something like a normal life. Beaches occupied a special place in their hearts, and by May many were no longer willing to be kept away from them.
A family visits the municipal beach in Delray Beach on May 18. Lifeguards patrolled the beach for unsafe activity while police officers made sure beach visitors did not violate any of the rules posted on signs all along A1A and at beach accesses. Rachel S. O’Hara/The Coastal Star
James Stonehouse of Delray Beach does distance swimming, surfing, kayaking and snorkeling.
These activities reduce the stress of a health condition and the demands of caring for his 90-year-old mother. His beach activities are “very therapeutic,” he said.
“I have been beside myself that I haven’t been able to get to the beach,” he said. “People pursuing health-sustaining activities should be allowed to pursue them,” especially those he practices that “align with social distancing.”
Chris Currie of Ocean Ridge said he is an “ardent user of the beach” with activities including scuba diving, swimming and sailing. He has let town commissioners and DeSantis know that he wanted beaches opened and has broadcast his feelings on social media.
DeSantis’ order closing beaches was “total overkill,” he said.
“I also believe there is absolutely no scientific basis whatsoever (for the closure), nor is there any rational basis for it. All my research says there is probably no more conducive environment to social distancing than the beach,” he said. “There is no environment more hostile to COVID-19.”
Currie had intended to file a lawsuit over beach closures but backed off when he learned that county commissioners were about to reopen them.
“I can assure you, if they are ever stupid enough to do this again, they will be hit with litigation in the first 10 minutes,” he said.
Palm Beach County could have legally prevented residents of other counties from using its beaches, County Attorney Denise Nieman said. But she recommended against doing that because many of the 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.
While county residents who want beaches reopened have not been shy about making their feelings known to city and town council members and county commissioners, there is also strong opposition.
County faces quandary
County Administrator Verdenia Baker told commissioners on May 8 that people surveyed were split on the subject.
One-third wanted full beach reopening provided groups on the beach would be limited to no more than 10, one-third wanted partial opening with restrictions such as closing bathrooms and not allowing sunbathing, and the rest did not want beaches to open out of concerns about virus spread.
Lake Worth Beach Commissioner Omari Hardy argued forcefully at the meeting against reopening beaches because the number of coronavirus cases in the county had not declined for 14 consecutive days, a metric that would indicate the contagion is under control.
“I think this is ill-advised and I think this is happening too soon,” he said.
“I agree with you,” said County Commissioner Melissa McKinlay.
County Commissioner Gregg Weiss said that the county should delay a reopening decision until officials have data showing whether the reopening of parks, golf courses and other recreation facilities has led to an increase in coronavirus cases. Similarly, the county has no data yet on the impact of limited reopening of restaurants and retail businesses.
Asked in a May 13 interview about why the commission did not address reopening beaches sooner, Weiss said it was trying to balance reopening businesses to alleviate the loss of jobs and other economic hardships caused by COVID-19, the desire of residents to have parks and beaches open and the health and safety of residents.
“You have this very difficult balance the board is trying to address,” he said.
Videos and photos of people crowding on Jacksonville and Naples beaches worried him. “At the end of the day, will people coming to our beaches do the same thing? I don’t know,” he said.
But his main focus was finding out if the lifting of restrictions in Palm Beach County would spark an increase in infections. That won’t be known for about two or three weeks afterward.
He wants the county to have a plan to reverse course and impose shutdowns quickly if the disease rate increases. Without that, “our reaction could be too slow,” he said.
Weinroth, who represents southeast Palm Beach County, is a strong proponent of opening beaches.
The commission’s delay in considering the opening was a result of the photos taken in Jacksonville and Naples, he said in a May 13 interview. “It makes people concerned.”
But he hoped that those disturbing images would fade from memory and that residents can be trusted to socially distance and not gather in groups on the beach.
“I really feel we need to do this with a light hand,” Weinroth said of beach regulation. “If residents use the beach appropriately, there won’t be a problem. We want people to be out in the sun.
“If something doesn’t go right and we have to shut it down, I will have no problem reversing the decision.”
County commissioners opened public and private beaches before Broward and Miami-Dade counties took similar action. As of May 19, those counties had not announced when their beaches would open. Broward County Mayor Dale V.C. Holness said it would not happen until at least May 26, the Tuesday after Memorial Day weekend.
The fact that the three counties did not act in concert concerned Ocean Ridge Town Manager Tracey Stevens.
“The thing we are worried about the most is if Broward and Miami-Dade don’t open beaches, we will get an influx of people to the beach,” she said on May 13.
She agrees with the assessment of lifeguards that they cannot enforce social distancing and limit crowd size by themselves. But police officers in the town, which has no lifeguards of its own, are limited in what they can do.
“Our concerns are that it is going to be really hard to enforce something when we don’t have a huge police force,” she said.
Even so, she did not intend to place greater restrictions on beach use than the county has. If every city and town has different restrictions, “it makes it too confusing and too hard to enforce,” she said.
Beaches present a special challenge, she said. While a restaurant or business has a clear capacity that makes it easier to regulate how many people can be inside, “there is no real capacity to a beach,” she said. “You can have thousands of people flocking to an area all at once.”
Doctors still urge caution
Like the county health chief Alonso, other physicians urged caution on reopening.
“I completely understand how everyone is feeling about being cooped up at home … but the other side is to caution everybody we are still in the middle of this pandemic,” said Dr. Terry Adirim, a professor and senior associate dean for clinical affairs at Florida Atlantic University. “A lot of us feel we are early in the pandemic.
“Anything we do to reopen we have to do carefully,” she said. “We are not going to be able to go back to where we were before the pandemic until we have a vaccine.”
She advised a deliberate approach that allows for some openings, following by a waiting period of several weeks to see whether they have caused an increase in virus cases. If not, additional openings would be permitted.
Adirim realizes the pressure on county officials to take steps to rescue the devastated economy.
But the county needs a “really good, coherent strategy” for opening. That includes more testing, contact tracing and developing plans for quarantining people exposed to those sickened by COVID-19, she said.
The number of cases will continue to rise until herd immunity is achieved, said Dr. Bill Benda, an emergency room physician and associate professor of emergency medicine at FAU. But the rate of increase must be slowed so that hospitals are not overwhelmed, he said.
Benda agrees with Adirim that it is critical to have a significant increase in diagnostic and antibody testing.
Reopening is difficult because not enough is known about the best way to do that. It is also complicated by the fact that some people won’t give up partying and don’t practice social distancing, he said.
“We haven’t made a sacrifice since the draft in the Vietnam War,” he said. “This is the first time in a long time we have been asked to make a sacrifice, and a significant proportion don’t want to do it.”
Benda, a surfer who loves the ocean, has seen many people sneak onto the closed beaches when they could easily exercise elsewhere.
“The reason to open up now is for people to feed their children,” he said. “It is not to walk on the beach. Quit whining about the beach.”
Tim McKinney Jr., an eighth-grader from Ocean Ridge, greets sunrise at Ocean Ridge Hammock Park on May 18. Tim received the skim board for his birthday earlier in the month and was able to use it for the first time when beaches reopened. Jerry Lower/The Coastal Star