By Rachel Brown Hackney
During their regular meeting on April 22, the Sarasota County commissioners agreed with County Administrator Jonathan Lewis’ approach to easing restrictions at county-operated beaches.
In fact, after the board voted unanimously to give him the go-ahead to implement his recommendations starting April 27, county staff stressed that the word “reopening” should not be used.
The commission decision came with emphasis on continued observance of the social distancing guidelines promulgated by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The parking lots would not be open at the outset, but the restrooms would.
Still, the parking lot issue sparked debate.
“I don’t really like the parking lot being closed, to be honest,” Commissioner Christian Ziegler said of Siesta Public Beach. “It’s a little discriminating,” he added, because people who live within close proximity to the beaches would be able to take advantage of the easing of the restrictions. People who live 5 or 6 miles away would need to drive to the shoreline, Ziegler continued. “Siesta Key may be, in particular, where they’re going to come anyway and park wherever they feel like parking.”
Chair Michael Moran added that he feared a lot of people would park on private property. “Maybe a very specific date [would be appropriate, for the parking lots to reopen], so staff can prepare,” he said, suggesting May 4 or May 11.
Commissioner Charles Hines countered, “I have two kids home from college … If Siesta Key Beach was fully open … that’s where they’d go,” regardless, Hines continued, of the discussions he has had with them about the need to stay safe during the public health crisis.
Commissioner Alan Maio noted that the board likely would have its next regular meeting nine days after the lifting of specific beach restrictions on April 27. “At that point, we all may be very comfortable [with opening the parking lots].”
In light of the discussion, Commissioner Nancy Detert said she would make a simple motion to give County Administrator Lewis considerable flexibility in how to move forward. The motion called for staff to “open the beaches with restrictions.”
“We all know that we could go down to the beach right this very minute and see people walking on the beach, but in a socially responsible manner,” Detert said. “We’re just allowing that privilege for everyone else.”
As it turned out, the public did not have to wait until May 5 for a revisiting of the parking lot issue. In fact, not only did county staff announce on April 30 that all the parking lots would reopen on May 4 at county-operated beaches, but staff also said people once again could feel free to bring chairs, towels, coolers and canopies to the shore. Sunbathing and lounging would be fine, the announcement noted.
However, Media Relations Officer Brianne Grant emphasized, “[W]e are asking all beachgoers to maintain social distancing and keep groups to 10 or less.”
The Mobi-mat would be out on Siesta, as it would under normal circumstances, and beach wheelchairs would be available, too, Nicole Rissler, director of the county’s Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Department pointed out in a county Facebook Live interview on April 30.
Yet, Rissler stressed, as of May 4, playgrounds, concessions, picnic shelters and other amenities would remain closed. Their reopening would be part of what Grant called Phase 3 of the easing of restrictions during the COVID-19 crisis.
The county decision about the beaches came one day after Gov. Ron DeSantis issued a new Executive Order, figuratively paving the way for most counties to return to some level of normalcy.
Additionally, in an email he sent to the commissioners just before 4 p.m. on April 27, County Administrator Lewis wrote, “Our lifeguards, beach attendants and the Sheriff’s Office have been doing outstanding work. Our Communications team did a great job getting the message out over the weekend [about the easing of restrictions].
“So far,” he added, “it shows that once again our residents will do the right thing.”
On April 29, when The Sarasota News Leader checked in with Kaitlyn R. Perez, community affairs director for the Sheriff’s Office, she reported, “Most everyone we came into contact with was following the rules for social distancing.”
Perez did note that she saw one incorrect tweet from a local TV station whose helicopter had flown over Siesta Public Beach. That tweet said Sheriff’s Office personnel were “kicking people off the beach” who were set up with chairs and coolers, Perez told the News Leader. She corrected that report “very quickly,” she added.
“Our guys and gals out on Siesta and all public beaches are informing folks that they must be participating in an ‘essential activity,’” Perez continued. “Not once have we told anyone to ‘leave’ the beach and I don’t believe we will anytime soon.”
Taking gradual steps
Sarasota County Administrator Lewis had ordered all county public beaches closed as of 6 a.m. March 21, as Manatee County leaders prepared to take the same step. Local government leaders, Lewis said, had heard talk of spring break groups heading to Florida’s west coast after south Florida municipalities closed their shorelines in an effort to prevent spread of the novel coronavirus.
Yet, with the rate of new COVID-19 infections gradually having slowed in Sarasota County, Lewis indicated on April 22 that it was time to let people go back to the beach to take advantage of the outdoor activities the governor had encouraged in the April 1 Executive Order: walking, running, swimming, surfing and fishing.
“This has to deal with mental health,” Commissioner Detert said. “People are getting so cooped up …” For those with anxiety problems and other mental health issues, Detert continued, “It would be more healthy to be out in the sunshine, walk the beach, get some exercise. Exercise is always good for your mental health.”