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SHALIMAR — The Okaloosa Island Fishing Pier is now closed to all members of the public, and all public and private beaches within Okaloosa County’s jurisdiction will remain closed through April 30, the County Commission agreed Tuesday.



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At its latest emergency meeting to address the coronavirus crisis, the board unanimously agreed to close the pier indefinitely. On March 17, commissioners had agreed to shut down the pier to everyone but fishermen.


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However, numerous fishermen have not been abiding by social distancing standards that call for people to stay at least six feet apart from one another, said Craig Coffey, assistant county administrator of operations.


When county sheriff’s deputies are on-site, the fishermen follow those guidelines, but then stand closer together when law enforcement isn’t around, according to Coffey.



After noting that fishermen are "independent," Commissioner and longtime fisherman Kelly Windes said the board would have to close the pier to all. The closure was recommended by Sheriff Larry Ashley, Commissioner Graham Fountain said.


Despite the objections of several members of the public, the board on Tuesday also approved keeping all beaches in the county’s jurisdiction closed through April, rather than allowing some beaches to open for restricted hours to locals only.


Various public and private beach closures took effect March 17 and 24, respectively.


Referring to the beach, Okaloosa Island resident Melissa Martin told the commission she pays "a hefty amount of taxes" to enjoy her backyard but can no longer do so.


Dr. Karen Chapman of the Okaloosa Department of Health gives an update to the Board of County Commissioners about Coronaviruses effects. Watch the video here: https://t.co/w9j8XezWCw

— Okaloosa County (@OkaloosaCounty) March 31, 2020

"I think we all have enough common sense to stay six feet apart," she said.


Destin businessman Claude Perry told the commission it needs to exercise balance and good judgment. Referring to a Destin beachfront owner, Perry urged the board to allow a private property owner to go on his own private property.


"You can shoot a cannon from the Marler Bridge down to Sandestin and not hit anybody," Perry said of greatly diminished traffic in the area.


But Coffey indicated that opening even one local beach might attract non-local visitors and cause more harm than good when it comes to battling the coronavirus outbreak.


Among other concerns, opening local beaches would overload the Sheriff’s Office, whose deputies would have to monitor the beachgoers, said District 2 Commissioner Carolyn Ketchel, whose district includes Okaloosa Island.


The continued beach closures "will be vastly unpopular with residents," Commission Chairman Trey Goodwin said. "It’s a painful responsibly that falls on this board. As we meet week to week, we’re going to evaluate this. We’ll open up this county as soon as it’s safe."


Commissioners on Tuesday also agreed to have the Sheriff’s Office strongly enforce a state order that requires all recreational boats to be at least 50 feet apart on the water.


Also, each recreational vessel must not have more than 10 people on board, according to the order, which was enacted last Friday by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.


"I’ve been getting a lot of complaints about people taking their boats out and meeting in large groups" in places such as Crab Island next to Destin, Goodwin said. "The message we should share is: ‘You better stop doing it right now.’"


The distance provision for recreational boats does not apply to permitted mooring fields, public or private marinas, or any other permanently installed wet slips, nor to vessels underway unless they are tied, rafted or moored to another vessel, according to the FWC.


Like Ketchel, Karen Chapman, director of the Florida Department of Health in Okaloosa County, participated in Tuesday’s meeting via a video feed rather than in person.


During her presentation, Chapman said social distancing must continue to be encouraged as the main current weapon against the coronavirus because there still is no vaccine or treatment for it.


She also said the general public should only leave home to get essential groceries and prescriptions.


"I want to remind you: this is a novel virus," Chapman said. "That means this is a new pathogen to human beings. There’s no other way to put it: We are at war with this virus."


While officials are seeing more positive cases of the virus because more testing is being done, Florida and the rest of the nation are "critically behind" on the testing, she said.


Nathan Boyles Okaloosa County Commissioner, District 3 talks about the Pier closure and more from today’s emergency special meeting on FB Live. Share your thoughts while viewing via Facebook messenger: https://t.co/54LdyB47PH https://t.co/V0VndxycIO

— Okaloosa County (@OkaloosaCounty) March 31, 2020

Additionally, only seven days’ worth of personal protective equipment for local healthcare providers and test-givers is currently available, she said.


"We don’t know when our next shipment is coming," Chapman said. "These are very, very trying times for the public healthcare system right here in Okaloosa. At this time, you should view the virus as being everywhere."


In response to questions from Commissioner Nathan Boyles, Chapman said she cannot predict when society will return to "normal."


"We need to blunt this, and stay the course of social distancing and encourage non-essential businesses to not continue to provide services, as many of them have been doing, in order to protect our community," she said. "We don’t have many tools in the toolbox to fight this virus."