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BREAKING: Okaloosa to fully reopen its beaches today

Tony Judnich
tjudnich@nwfdailynews.com
Northwest Florida Daily News

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SHALIMAR — All Gulf-front beaches within Okaloosa County’s jurisdiction will be fully reopened today, as soon as staff can remove “closed” signs and open gates and restrooms, the County Commission unanimously agreed this morning.

The Okaloosa Island Fishing Pier and Marler Park on Okaloosa Island also will be fully reopened as soon as possible today, the board agreed.

Commissioners reminded everyone of the need to continue to practice social distancing at the various county recreational areas.

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Once fully reopened, the beaches will be accessible again from dawn to dusk daily, and the pier will resume its 24-hours-per-day accessibility.

The commission also agreed to fully reopen Marler Park because many people like to use its beach just east of the Brooks Bridge and on Okaloosa Island. Except for its boat ramp area, the park had been closed since late March.

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The commission today also agreed that all county parks, including their amenities such as playgrounds, picnic pavilions and restrooms, will reopen at 7 a.m. Thursday.

The county’s Gulf-front beaches, the pier and various park amenities were placed off limits in March to try to help slow the spread of the coronavirus.

Last Friday, the county cautiously reopened its beaches and the pier from 6:30 a.m. to 9 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. to 7 p.m., with an initial plan to reopen them fully this Saturday.

Last Thursday, however, the Destin City Council approved fully reopening beaches in Destin from dawn to dusk daily, beginning last Friday. This group of beaches didn’t include the beach at Henderson Beach State Park.

Before the commission took action this morning on the county beaches, Commissioner Nathan Boyles asked county Public Safety Director Pat Maddox if there was any public-safety benefit to having limited beach hours for the county-owned James Lee Park by Destin when Destin beaches on either side of it were open without time limits.

“No,” Maddox replied. “We were trying to keep tourists (from potential COVID-19 hot spots) from coming, but with the Destin beaches being open, we had limited effect on that.”

He also said there was confusion among some beachgoers whether James Lee Park was a county beach or a Destin beach.

During the discussion on beaches, Maddox also provided a snapshot of beachgoer numbers for county-owned Beasley Park and the seven county beach accesses along Santa Rosa Boulevard on Okaloosa Island during the past four days, when visiting hours were limited.

For example, the number of beachgoers at those beaches totaled about 2,000 in the morning and about 4,500 in the evening last Friday, Maddox said. Overall, they practiced good social distancing, he said.

The twice-daily figures then gradually decreased. During the four days of limited beach hours, some beachgoers had to be reminded by county workers about following social-distancing guidelines and the limited beach hours, but there was no pushback, Maddox said.

Also during that four-day period, staff saw that about 45% of the license plates on vehicles parked at the county beaches on Okaloosa Island were from Alabama, Louisiana and Texas, he said.

District 2 Commissioner Carolyn Ketchel, whose district includes Okaloosa Island and who at previous meetings expressed hesitancy about reopening the beaches, made the motion to fully reopen them as soon as possible.

There is no point in keeping them open for only limited hours, said Ketchel, who added that beachgoers must remember “personal responsibility” and practice social distancing and that local businesses need to return to work.

“We need to move forward and let America grow again,” she said.

District 5 Commissioner Kelly Windes, whose district includes Destin, said he agreed with opening the beaches ASAP because local hospitalizations of people testing positive for the coronavirus continue decreasing and beaches in neighboring counties are being reopened fully.