WALTON COUNTY, Fla. (WMBB) — On Thursday morning, the Walton County Board of County Commissioners decided to close all public beaches for 30 days.
This decision coming just one day after the county saw its first positive case of COVID-19.
The commissioners then tasked the Sheriff’s Office with enforcing the emergency ordinance.
A few hours after the meeting finished, Sheriff Michael Adkinson, Jr. called a news conference to discuss how they would go about the challenge.
“We were receiving phone calls within about 30 minutes of that action being taken. ‘Sheriff why haven’t you got these people off the beach yet. People are still on the beach. There’s a lot of beach here. There’s a lot to cover and a lot to do,” Adkinson said.
Adkinson says they cover about 20 miles of beach and it was impossible to clear the beach within a matter of hours. He says their first step was to educate the beachgoers on the new ordinance.
“That’s first and foremost. Keep in mind this is a customer service oriented business. We have to let people know there has been a change.”
He says, for the most part, people have listened to the deputies patrolling the sands.
“They’re not pleased but they understand and they’re complying. That’s what we want. We are looking for voluntary compliance. I want to be clear, we are not dragging people off the beach in handcuffs.”
If you choose not to be compliant, you will be handed a misdameanor charge.
“No we would not, typically speaking, take those folks out to jail. We would issue a notice to appear, a summons, things of that nature. Now listen, you slap a deputy, or you slap a lifeguard in this – you’re going the whole way, you’re going the whole way, you get the full trip,” Adkinson said.
The Sheriff’s Office deputies, along with community partners like the South Walton Fire District (SWFD) will be working together to keep individuals off public beaches.
“Believe it or not, we have some experience in this between double red flag conditions, hurricanes, tropical events where we enact through emergency measures to close the beach for public safety and our men and women are always engaged in educating the public,” said SWFD Chief Ryan Crawford.
A good sign though, Sheriff Adkinson says local business owners he’s spoken with are wanting to help uphold the closures and hopes the rental property owners do the same.
“We need our vacation rental folks to be honest and tell these folks that the beaches are closed. Do not continue to advertise and fill houses with 20-30 people, come down here and let them take the money. The beach is closed for that standpoint.”
Signs will go up on Friday morning starting at 5:00 a.m. at every public beach access point in the county.
Adkinson says their main goal is compliance but the law will be enforced.
“How many folks are we willing to arrest is the best way to put it, if they’re not compliant. Again, we’re shooting for compliance. We’re shooting for people working together but let’s be clear about this if it’s a question of wills. I’m going to win that, I’m gonna win that. I promise you because I’m not going to not do my job,” Adkinson said.
He also encourages everyone, the only way to get through this pandemic is by doing it as a team.
“This is not a one-day event. This isn’t a blizzard. It’s a winter. It’s a long term. We’ve got to get through this and the only way we’ll get through this working as good neighbors and with cooperation.”
The emergency ordinance is in effect for 30 days however, the commission can revisit the matter at any time. They can also choose to extend it if needed.