Beaches in Florida’s St. Johns County remained open to record crowds through most of March, despite mounting concerns raised by the county’s medical examiner and residents.
While many states were issuing directives to residents to stay home in March, officials in St. Johns County, home of St. Augustine, kept beaches open, even as the county’s medical examiner repeatedly said the county couldn’t handle a deadly outbreak, according to emails obtained by Columbia University’s Brown Institute for Media Innovation and reviewed by The Washington Post.
The county later closed the beaches on March 29 and then partly reopened them two weeks later. As of Saturday, the county has had four deaths from covid-19, the disease the coronavirus causes, and more than 200 confirmed cases, a sliver of the 35,463 cases and 1,364 deaths in Florida, which are concentrated in more populated areas such as Miami and Fort Lauderdale.
As domestic travel slowed amid coronavirus concerns, South Florida beach communities faced ire after thousands of spring breakers partied by the ocean instead of socially distancing. When a community farther up Florida’s eastern coast reopened amid mounting death rates, #FloridaMorons trended on Twitter.
On Monday, St. Johns plans to reopen its beaches completely, amid a national debate and protests about access to beaches in coastal states. In California last weekend, thousands gathered at beaches, prompting Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) to close those in Orange County. Officials in Alabama and Georgia, eager to restart their states’ economies, reopened or eased restrictions at beaches on April 30. In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) has repeatedly said it’s up to local officials to open or close beaches. St. Johns is among several Florida counties granting beach access this week.
[#FloridaMorons trends after people flock to reopened Florida beaches]
One weekend in mid-March, the county “saw crowds that nearly doubled spring break last year as well as Memorial Day,” Doug Bataille, the county’s parks director, wrote to other county officials in an email explaining that the county had lost the vendor that cleaned its beaches’ portable toilets.
“The volume does not seem to be declining,” he wrote.
At the same time, Deanna A. Oleske, the associate medical examiner for the county, and residents wrote to officials and pleaded to close the beaches.
“Protect the residents” of St. Johns County, Oleske wrote to County Administrator Hunter Conrad on March 23. “Close the beaches. Please.”
[Summer tourists want to know: Will East Coast beaches open? Maybe, but with some changes.]
Oleske repeatedly warned officials in emails that her office is “in a dire situation” and that she didn’t have the necessary staff, equipment and capacity to handle all the potential covid-19 deaths. She said her office, along with the county’s hospitals and funeral homes, could hold a total of 119 bodies. She asked for two trailers, one to store corpses and the other to perform autopsies.
“We are facing NUMEROUS issues that are inhibiting us to appropriately staff this office in an expeditious manner BEFORE facing a pandemic of unknown proportions,” Oleske wrote in another email.
Oleske didn’t immediately respond to The Washington Post’s request for comment.
Residents on both sides weighed in via email, some sending photos of crowds at the beach, others complaining about the closure.
“People are continuing to pour in,” wrote one resident who took pictures of cars parked near the beach before the closure. “WAKE UP! DO SOMETHING!!!”
A California community closed beaches over coronavirus concerns. The emergency manager took his family anyway.
Another resident emailed to ask that beaches reopen, saying she drove to Volusia County, home to the famed Daytona Beach, because the beaches in St. Johns were closed.
“Thanks to a lot of selfish jerks who refused to adhere to the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] guidelines on physical distancing, our beautiful beaches are closed to all of us, including those of us who have been very careful to follow the guidelines in our use of public spaces,” the resident wrote.
A surfer at a St. Johns beach was among those ignoring the official closure.
“Covid-19 is not here, bro,” the surfer told News4Jax before beaches had reopened for limited hours. “We’ve been out here the whole time just having fun, man.”
Michael Ryan, a spokesman for the county, didn’t immediately respond to The Post’s request for comment but told the New York Times on Thursday that beachgoers were social distancing.
County officials kept beaches open nearly to the end of March, closing them a day after an aerial photo showed a clear line of separation between a beach in St. Johns and one in neighboring Duval County, the home of Jacksonville, which had closed its beaches. The St. Johns side was crowded, while the sands on the Duval side were deserted.
Two weeks later, Duval reopened its beaches with limited hours the day before St. Johns did and saw crowds that spurred the #FloridaMorons hashtag.
DeSantis and other Florida officials defended the reopening of beaches, saying Floridians use beaches like parks, for exercise. He said he doesn’t see the point in strict enforcement, especially as Floridians are cooped up with quarantine measures in place.
“I get a kick out of somebody jogging on the beach in California, like all by his lonesome, and you have a fleet of cops go out there,” he said during a news briefing in April. “He’s just jogging. Going forward, I think we’ve got to be promoting people to get exercise.”
Chuck Mulligan, a spokesman for the St. Johns Sheriff’s Office, told The Post deputies are giving beachgoers verbal warnings about social distancing but haven’t cited or arrested anyone for going to the beach.
“We try to be human because what’s important is that we balance civil rights and flattening the curve,” Mulligan said.