This content is being provided for free as a public service to our readers during the coronavirus outbreak. Please support local journalism by subscribing to the Northwest Florida Daily News.

Okaloosa County Commissioners voted unanimously Tuesday to pass an emergency declaration that will close public beaches along the county’s 27-mile coastline for the foreseeable future.

The Declaration of Emergency Protective Measures Related to COVID-19, which also closes beach access ways, beach parking areas and county beachfront parks, will be enforced as of Saturday morning.

Both visitors and local residents will be subject to the terms of the declaration.

The pier on Okaloosa Island will also be closed to everyone other than fishermen.

The primary advocate for the declaration was Dr. Karen Chapman, the director of the Okaloosa County branch of the Florida Department of Health.

“We haven’t had a pandemic like this in 100 years, and that one killed 25 million people,” she told commissioners. “I’m calling on you to treat this as maybe not a Cat 5 storm but a Cat 10.”

Chapman told commissioners the county’s popularity as a “drive-to market” for tourists, particularly spring breakers at this time of year, could lead to a local healthcare disaster.

She noted that many of the spring breakers are coming from “drive-from” cities like New Orleans, Dallas, Birmingham and Atlanta, all COVID-19 hotspots.

The spring break crowd now assembled tends to be disrespectful of authority and “in that invincible period of life,” Chapman said.

And, at a time when the governor has ordered people to limit group sizes to no more than 10, “they gather in throngs’” she said

While the many visitors may not be at great risk from the coronavirus, they could be carrying it when they interact with those who are vulnerable, Chapman warned.

With hospitals and other health services already operating near peak capacity, an outbreak could spell catastrophe for the Emerald Coast by overwhelming hospitals and their staffs and local emergency services.

Scenarios exist in which physicians will be required to choose which patients to treat and which to turn away, she said.

“We have less than 10 cases now in Northwest Florida, that will probably change by this afternoon,” she said. “We may have one chance not to crash and burn our health system; we have it if we act now.”

Okaloosa’s coronavirus numbers did, in fact, increase again Thursday. A new case of COVID-19, the county’s fourth, was reported by the Health Department.

Also, a person tied to Hurlburt Field, though it’s not clear where he or she lives, was reported to have tested positive for the virus.

Not everyone in attendance was willing to buy into Chapman’s dire forecast.

Several area business owners stood at Thursday’s meeting to protest the beach closure, and predicted consequences from doing so that would turn out far worse for the area than weathering a virus.

Local hotelier Vince Bruner told commissioners that he has about 300 people working for him, most of them living paycheck to paycheck, carrying debt and with children counting on them.

He said with the beaches closed his employees stood to lose their livelihood.

“There’s not enough adequate data to make the decisions we’re making,” Bruner said. “The government and media, I think, are going full bore scaring people to death.”

Julian McQueen, the owner of the Hilton Garden Inn in Fort Walton Beach, said COVID-19 has already greatly impacted the local tourism industry to the extent that his business won’t turn a profit this year.

The beach closure, McQueen said, would force him to send home 250 employees.

“Shutting down hotels is going to affect the most vulnerable citizens. We’re open right now to pay our employees, the people who come to work,” he said. “If we close the beaches we cut off the strong economic engine and impact the employment of hundreds and hundreds of people who need to take care of their families.”

Parker Destin, a Destin city councilman, county commission candidate and local restaurant owner, was the only one of eight speakers to express support for the county’s proposed emergency declaration.

County commissioners to a man or woman expressed their concern for the harm that closing the county beaches would do to the local economy. Commissioner Kelly Windes, while expressing support for the declaration in front of him, said the decision to vote for something he knew would hurt business was the hardest he would make as a board member.

“I’m going to support the declaration of emergency and hope against all hope that it won’t be for very long,” he said.

Commissioner Graham Fountain likened Thursday’s vote to being a juror deciding a death penalty case.

Sheriff Larry Ashley, whose deputies will be asked to enforce the terms of the county’s declaration said his officers are “ahead of the curve” in dealing with the virus by virtue of the fact that on Feb. 28 a deputy interacted with an individual who later died of COVID-19.

He said he favored the decision to close the beaches and warned commissioners “there’s no help coming” in the event of an outbreak, as agencies across the state are also being overwhelmed by the virus.

County Commissioner Nathan Boyles said the disregard those coming to the beach have so far shown by ignoring calls to stay home had convinced him closing the county’s beaches was the way to go.

He sought, however, to seek to enforce the declaration across all beaches, not just those under county control.

The way the declaration was worded, the six county businesses that claim beach ownership all the way to the Gulf of Mexico can still market their properties to vacationers, Boyles argued. That threatens to diminish whatever good the county was trying to accomplish, he said.

His effort to amend the declaration to include privately owned beach front failed 3-2.

!function(e,i,n,s){var t="InfogramEmbeds",d=e.getElementsByTagName("script")[0];if(window[t]&&window[t].initialized)window[t].process&&window[t].process();else if(!e.getElementById(n)){var o=e.createElement("script");o.async=1,o.id=n,o.src="https://e.infogram.com/js/dist/embed-loader-min.js",d.parentNode.insertBefore(o,d)}}(document,0,"infogram-async");