MIRAMAR BEACH — Despite the ongoing threat from COVID-19, it’s back to vacation business as usual — or nearly so — along area beaches, even as the number of COVID-19 cases is rising both locally and across the state.
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And while local health department officials are urging the use of face masks and social distancing to help slow the spread of COVID-19, local elected officials are taking a wait-and-see approach to dealing with any potential local COVID-19-related fallout from the returning vacation crowds.
In Walton County, according to County Commission Chairman Bill Chapman, officials “will continue to monitor the COVID-19 pandemic closely and will continue to focus on the health and safety of our residents, businesses and visitors.”
But, Chapman added, the county’s emergency management department is continuing, in cooperation with the county health department and state and federal resources, to develop contingency plans for use in the event of a spike in local COVID-19 cases.
However, the chairman said, “At this time, there is not a specific number of new cases that would prompt an implementation of any contingency ... plan or process.”
Any decisions that may be made on implementing a contingency plan, Chapman added, “will be thoroughly vetted based on such information as increased ICU bed usage, available contact tracing information and the monitoring of percent-positive numbers” of COVID-19 tests administered in the county.
The approach is much the same in Okaloosa County, where County Commission Chairman Trey Goodwin said officials “are certainly concerned about the potential for rising cases” of COVID-19, particularly cases that might originate with people from outside the county.
Goodwin said county officials are monitoring metrics such as hospitalizations of COVID-19 patients to determine whether the county might need to take action to mitigate any issues that might accompany an increased presence of the illness in the county.
But, Goodwin added, “At this point, we’ve drawn no ’bright line’ rule” establishing what parameters might have to be met for the county to take action on any COVID-19 mitigation.
Anyway, as of late last week, the point was moot, in Goodwin’s estimation. Goodwin said Thursday that just six people were hospitalized at the time with COVID-19. Just one of those patients was in an intensive care unit, Goodwin said, and none of them were on a ventilator.
Concerns about a potential local surge in COVID-19 cases have accompanied Gov. Ron DeSantis’ lifting of a ban on short-term vacation rentals. Those lodgings — the condominiums lining the area’s beaches, and similar accommodations offered by Airbnb, Vrbo and other third-party operators — comprise the vast majority of vacation lodging available in Walton and Okaloosa counties.
DeSantis issued the short-term rental ban in a March 27 executive order. The order, combined with locally mandated shutdowns of area public and private beaches — which have since been lifted — effectively shut down tourism across Northwest Florida.
RELATED: PHOTOS: South Walton and Okaloosa Island Beach activity June 15, 2020
Originally set to expire on May 1, DeSantis extended the order until May 17. At that point, counties were allowed to reopen short-term rentals, after submitting plans for sanitation and other issues for approval by the state.
Within a couple of days of the order’s expiration, counties across Northwest Florida had gotten approval of their plans and reopened short-term rentals.
“They were six or eight of the hardest weeks of my life,” Jeanne Dailey, founder, CEO and sole owner of Newman-Dailey Resort Properties Inc., a major local vacation rental operator, said recently of the short-term vacation rental band.
But, Dailey quickly added, “As soon as the governor lifted the ban, we felt like we were drinking from a fire hose.”
During the ban, Dailey allowed people with pre-existing reservations to cancel those reservations, but also offered gift certificates matching the cost of the reservation for later redemption. And in some cases, Dailey said, renters just left their money on the books at Newman-Dailey for a later vacation.
It is that pent-up demand, now being exercised, that is driving the current surge of tourists into the area, Dailey said.
And, she added, that pent-up demand could continue to be a factor in local vacation rentals, moving the local tourist season beyond its traditional tapering off after the Labor Day holiday weekend.
While the short-term rental ban meant a precipitous drop in Newman-Dailey’s business, the recent surge in rentals has put the company just 25 percent behind where it would have been at this point in a normal tourist season, according to Dailey.
And with reservations now moving deep into September, Dailey added, Newman-Dailey Resort Properties could, just possibly, come out OK for this year.
“There’s a long way to go,” Dailey said, “but it’s possible.”
In the meantime, local public health officials are issuing reminders that COVID-19 remains a reality, and measures to help slow the spread of the virus remain important.
“The virus is still circulating in our community, in our region and in our state,” said Dr. Karen Chapman, director of the Florida Department of Health in Okaloosa County. “It has not gone away.”
And while the numbers aren’t necessarily related to the reopening of vacation rentals — they could be attributed to increased testing or any number of other factors — it’s worth looking at the numbers of local COVID-19 cases, since they could inform decisions by local governments regarding mitigation of the disease.
Between May 19 and Thursday, Okaloosa County recorded 170 new positive COVID-19 tests, according to Florida Department of Health data, with just one day in which no new cases were reported.
In Walton County over the same time period, 59 new cases were reported, according to FDOH data, with just five days in which no new cases were listed.
According to Chapman, the public needs to remain mindful of public health practices to help slow the coronavirus.
“It remains more important than ever to continue to wash your hands frequently, don’t touch your face, stay home when you are sick and practice physical distancing,” Chapman said.
Additionally, Chapman made the case for people to wear masks to help slow the spread of COVID-19.
“It is also of critical importance as we move forward to rally behind the use of face cloth masks by the vast majority of the community,” Chapman said. Broadly speaking, masks can halt the spread of disease, and can also serve to protect vulnerable populations such as the elderly and the diabetic.
Holly Holt, administrator of the Florida Department of Health in Walton County, is sounding a similar note on the use of face masks and other measures for helping to control the spread of COVID-19.
“We encourage residents and tourists to practice social distancing, encourage the use of face masks, and wash your hands and use hand sanitizer often,” Holt said late last week.“
For weeks now, both Okaloosa and Walton counties have expanded local COVID-19 testing, regularly offering free drive-through testing at venues across their respective communities.
In Walton County, there are two testing sessions scheduled for the south end of the county in July. That’s the location of most of the county’s short-term rental accommodations, and testing conducted there could provide county officials with some sense of how vacationers might be affecting the county’s COVID-19 numbers.
“We will continue offering testing around the county and will target the south end of the county with increased testing should it become necessary,” Holt said in an email, adding that county health officials “are in constant contact with our community health care partners and Walton County Emergency Management.”
While workers in a vast array of local businesses are, in fact, wearing masks, their patrons, including vacationers from an array of states including Texas, Kentucky, Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, Illinois and Missouri — the “drive-to“ markets for Northwest Florida vacations — largely are going without masks.
Physical distancing — maintaining six feet of separation from others, and not gathering in crowds of more than 50 people — is similarly problematic locally, as grocery stores, restaurants and beaches now are hosting large numbers of locals and visitors.
All of that is playing out against a backdrop of an increasing number of positive COVID-19 tests in Okaloosa County and neighboring Walton County, where public health officials say that increased testing logically was expected to produce greater numbers of positive tests.
But also, according to Chapman, “the increase in cases (which she has called ’concerning’) was expected as Florida and Okaloosa reopened for business since that meant we were interacting more with each other within our community.”
The state government recognizes the federal protocols for slowing the spread of COVID-19, but does not direct any enforcement of those guidelines.
In a June 5 executive order loosening COVID-19-related restrictions on individuals and businesses, DeSantis notes that “(a)ll persons in Florida are encouraged to follow appropriate social distancing and safety protocols issued by the CDC (the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and OSHA (the federal Occupational Safety and Health Adminsitration).”
But immediately afterward, the order notes that the “direction to follow such protocols ... is guidance and not enforceable under Section 252.47, Florida Statutes.” That section of state law addresses local enforcement of emergency management measures.
And so it is that social distancing measures aren’t being actively monitored or enforced by local law-enforcement agencies.
In Walton County, deputies will respond to complaints from people concerned that their space is being intruded upon, but they aren’t actively searching for such situations.
“If we have any issues, we’re addressing them,” said Corey Dobridnia, public information officer for the Walton County Sheriff’s Office, explaining that deputies will talk with people exhibiting potentially problematic behavior when contacted with a complaint.
“It’s a fine line,” Dobridnia said. But, she added,, “You want people to stay healthy.”
The story is much the same in Okaloosa County, where the Sheriff’s Office beach patrol and marine units each are reporting “more or less normal business” as tourists have once again flocked to local shores, according to Michele Nicholson, public information officer for the sheriff’s office.
“As for the social distancing complaints, if we get a complaint we would address it, but the goal is not to be heavy-handed,” Nicholson said.
“The bottom line,” Nicholson said, “is our deputies will inform and remind people about the guidelines with the goal being cooperation, since public cooperation is the most efficient and effective way to gain compliance when you have tens of thousands of tourists and boaters.”