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Santa Rosa County will re-open Navarre Beach in a series of phases beginning May 1, becoming the latest Panhandle county to initiate a gradual re-opening of local beaches as health officials say the curve of COVID-19 cases is beginning to flatten.

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Following nearly two hours of debate and public forum, the commissioners voted unanimously at their Thursday morning meeting to approve a three-phased approach to re-opening the beach, which has been closed since March 20. The first phase will begin May 1 and will have the following restrictions:

— The beach will be open from 2:30 to 7:30 p.m. each day.

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— Beach access will be available via the main pier parking lot only and the pavilions at the east end of the beach at the Navarre Beach Marine Park, closest to Gulf Islands National Seashore. Parking lot hours will be limited to coincide with beach opening.

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— In accordance with federal guidelines and state executive orders, visitors can gather in no more than groups of 10 and maintain appropriate social distancing.

— The Navarre Beach Fishing Pier will be open to fishermen with existing permits only, not walkers, for normal pier hours.

The second phase will include opening the beach for up to eight hours a day, and the third phase will see the beach re-open as normal.

Each phase will be in place for a minimum of two weeks before being re-evaluated to determine if the county is ready to move into the next phase, in accordance with public health officials' recommendations.

Santa Rosa County is taking a cautious approach to re-opening, with the sheriff's office continuing to have a checkpoint presence to ensure people aren't going to the beach during non-approved hours. Gulf Islands National Seashore is also going to remain closed, eliminating the possibility for people to travel on the connecting road between Pensacola Beach and Navarre Beach.

County Administrator Dan Schebler said Thursday that the limited hours are meant to prevent visitors from out of town, particularly from COVID-19 hot spots, from coming to the beach to visit.

“If the beach is only open four to five hours, people may not be willing to drive from Knoxville, Tennessee, to come from the weekend, for instance.” Schebler said. “Nothing against Knoxville.”

Navarre Beach Fire Rescue Chief Danny Fureigh, who runs the beach safety program, said he would have to increase his lifeguard staffing to "Memorial Day weekend levels" once the beaches re-open, even if it's just for a limited time each day.

“I've got a feeling it’s going to be very overwhelming. … We still have five lifeguards (on the beach now), but we’re going to ramp it up to 10 lifeguards,” he said.

Both Fureigh and Santa Rosa County Sheriff Bob Johnson urged the commissioners not to re-open the beach for two separate time periods each day — for instance, a few hours in the morning and a few hours in the evening — because it would be almost impossible to enforce and it would stretch limited resources even thinner.

District 1 Commissioner Sam Parker said he did not support opening the beach for a small block of time because he feared it would create a “Black Friday” scenario where everybody would cram to get into the beach at once. Parker supported re-opening the beach for the full day.

“I think we’re penalizing a lot of law-abiding citizens that would go out there and social distance,” he said.

District 3 Commissioner and Board Chairman Don Salter, who attended the meeting via telephone, disagreed.

“We need to re-open the beaches we need to reopen the economy, but we need to do it in phases,” Salter said.

Lawmakers in both Okaloosa and Bay counties voted Tuesday to open their beaches for recreational activities. Starting May 1, beaches in Okaloosa County's jurisdiction will open to the public from 6:30 to 9 a.m. and 4:30 to 7 p.m. daily, with all beach activities permitted.

Bay County Commissioners voted to reopen the unincorporated sandy beaches from 6 to 9 a.m. and from 5 to 8 p.m. starting Friday. Recreational activities like fishing and walking down the beach will be allowed while the beaches are open.

Escambia County is set to discuss re-opening Pensacola Beach on Tuesday.

Annie Blanks can be reached at ablanks@pnj.com or 850-435-8632.