Scattered Florida beaches reopening ’to exercise not to socialize’

(The Center Square) – Gov. Ron DeSantis said Friday that Sunshine State beaches and parks should reopen if municipal governments deem it safe to do so.

“Do it in a good way. Do it in a safe way,” DeSantis said during a Fort Lauderdale news conference, saying beaches and parks would offer house-bound residents an outlet to be active and provide a psychological lift during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The governor’s April 1 safer-at-home order left discretion regarding beaches and municipal parks to local governments, so his Friday comments were more encouragement than policy. State beaches and parks remain closed.

DeSantis shut down Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade county beaches in March after they were thronged by spring-breakers and “COVID refugees” fleeing quarantine orders elsewhere.

Duval County already planned to open its beaches and did so Friday with restricted hours, 6-11 a.m. and 5-8 p.m., for walking, biking, hiking, fishing, running, swimming, pet-walking and surfing; anything but sitting and sunbathing.

Beach gatherings of 50 or more people are prohibited, as are chairs and coolers, and social distancing protocols remain in place on Duval beaches.

“Folks, this could be the beginning of the pathway back to normal life, but please respect and follow these limitations,” Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry tweeted. “We’ll get back to life as we know it, but we must be patient. Don’t ruin this for everyone.”

St. Johns County announced Friday its beaches will open daily beginning Saturday from 6 a.m. to noon for walking, running, surfing, biking, fishing, exercise and swimming.

“Walk to exercise not to socialize,” Florida Department of Health St. Johns County Health Officer Dr. Dawn C. Allicock said. “As long as individuals adhere to the CDC guidelines of social distancing, getting exercise and fresh air can be beneficial for our citizens’ physical and mental health.”

St. Johns County Administrator Hunter Conrad cautioned residents to tread carefully and adhere to social distancing protocols.

“We are urging all who use the beach to follow the restrictions in place,” Conrad said. “Our hope is this becomes a great mental health release for so many and becomes the first step of many in the coming weeks and months in our return to normal life.”

Nearly all Florida beaches have been placed off-limits by municipal governments, although those in several Panhandle counties remain open.

Volusia County beaches, which includes Daytona Beach, remain open for anything other than sitting and sunbathing while Monroe and Brevard county beaches are open to residents only.

DeSantis has been criticized – and sued – for not issuing a statewide beach closure order and local governments have been lambasted and taken to court for shutting down beaches.

Two North Florida attorneys, Gaultier Kitchen and Daniel Uhlfelder, sued DeSantis in state court seeking an injunction requiring him to shut down all beaches. That lawsuit was dismissed.

Oceanfront landowners in Walton County, including former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, asked a federal judge to block a local ordinance that made all beaches off limits, claiming the restriction does not legally apply to private property, violates due process and prevents them from using their “backyards.”

U.S. District Judge Roger Vinson on Monday refused to suspend the ordinance.

“Certainly, this is a national emergency. It’s a state emergency. I think without question the county has authority to take whatever measures they think are necessary to meet that need, as long as it’s narrowly tailored to meet that interest,” Vinson ruled.

Vinson said any harm would be “temporary” and “relatively minimal compared to the harms that might result if you have exposure to a communicable virus.”

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