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Daytona Beach Photo courtesy Visit Florida

Coronavirus in Florida

Local governments wrestle with whether to close beaches

Sands continue to shift on officials’ decisions.

While all the major theme parks are closed amid a coronavirus pandemic, many of Florida’s beaches still bustle with activity.

But the sands shift by the hour.

No statewide guidance has been given to shut down Florida’s popular beaches, most of them publicly owned. It’s been left to local governments to decide whether to close down what for many communities is the most powerful economic engine for tourism.

Tampa Mayor Jane Castor on Wednesday ordered four beaches in that city. Pinellas County will close their beaches beginning Saturday, Manatee County is closing its beaches at 6 a.m. Friday and Sarasota County at 6 a.m. Saturday.

But many of Florida’s other beaches remain open for business.

That includes Daytona Beach, a famous spring break destination. Volusia County officials say they are keeping all beaches open right now. That’s despite nine county residents testing positive for COVID-19, according to the most recent figures from the Department of Health.

But it’s a struggle for officials to make the call in areas that rely on the beach economy.

Sarasota and Manatee counties didn’t make their decision until hours after Sarasota city officials defended keeping Lido Beach open.

“The City of Sarasota does not experience the heavy number of spring breakers like those areas,” said Jan Thornburg, Sarasota senior communications director.

City Manager Tom Barwin had already issued an emergency declaration in the city.

“The City Manager has been at Lido and observed beachgoers who appeared to be social distancing as recommended,” Thornburg said. “He will continue to monitor and consult with county and state officials, as developments with his pandemic are changing hourly.”

Nevertheless, the decision ultimately came from county officials that the beach must close. It’s a decision that hit hospitality leaders hard in a community where tourism remains the No. 1 industry.

“Obviously, it’s a blow,” said Virginia Haley, president of Visit Sarasota County. “If there are two important things in the tourism industry here, it’s beaches and the arts, and basically both have gone dark. But you have to put people’s health and public safety first.”

But even as officials wrestle with the decision, there’s no shortage of public outrage that more has not been done to make crowds recede.

Social media platforms teem with complaints Gov. Ron DeSantis has yet to stop crowding at Florida’s coastal destinations. And some public officials are speaking out as well.

“Every level of government has to be very clear, don’t be on the beach unless you can be somehow completely by yourself,” said Sen. Rick Scott, a Naples Republican, to CNN’s New Day.

And Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Sunrise Democrat, scolded Florida Surgeon General Scott Rivkees in a phone call with Florida’s Congressional Delegation Tuesday, Politico reports. Her concern? Not enough is being done to discourage young people from congregating at Florida destinations.

Scott and all of Florida’s 13 Congressional Democrats called on DeSantis to close all Florida’s public beaches through executive order.

Anger seemed to soar with release of a video clip distributed by CBS News showcasing spring breakers from around the country defiantly gathering in Miami.

“If I get corona, I get corona. At the end of the day, I’m not gonna let it stop me from partying,” Brady Sluder, a visitor from Ohio, says in the clip. “We’re just out here having a good time. Whatever happens, happens.”

Miami leaders have taken measures to reduce crowds. On Thursday morning, Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez ordered the closure of all the beaches there.

That’s happened in many other coastal communities as well. Lee County officials on Thursday evening will shut down its beaches, including the popular Fort Myers Beach Pier, and have closed down a beach trolley already.

It’s unclear if this will clear tourists out of the beaches or if it will just concentrate them in those areas still open to the public.

But for what it’s worth, Haley, chair of Visit Florida, said she’s grateful every community gets to make the decision on their own.

“The Governor was wise to let this be a local decisions,” she said. “There are different parts of the state with different highs and lows. There are beaches in the state that are not crowded.”

Written By

Jacob Ogles has covered politics in Florida since 2000 for regional outlets including SRQ Magazine in Sarasota, The News-Press in Fort Myers and The Daily Commercial in Leesburg. His work has appeared nationally in The Advocate, Wired and other publications. Events like SRQ’s Where The Votes Are workshops made Ogles one of Southwest Florida’s most respected political analysts, and outlets like WWSB ABC 7 and WSRQ Sarasota have featured his insights. He can be reached at jacobogles@hotmail.com.

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