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Florida begins to reopen at (where else?) the beach

From the Panhandle to the Space Coast, local governments that had closed their shorelines in an attempt to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus announced plans to open limited access to the beach.
A banner plane flies a sign urging Miami Beach, Fla., Mayor Dan Gelber to open the beaches, which have been closed due to the coronavirus outbreak, Sunday, April 19, 2020, in Miami Beach, Fla.
A banner plane flies a sign urging Miami Beach, Fla., Mayor Dan Gelber to open the beaches, which have been closed due to the coronavirus outbreak, Sunday, April 19, 2020, in Miami Beach, Fla. [ WILFREDO LEE | AP ]
Published Apr. 23, 2020|Updated Apr. 23, 2020

After weeks of lockdown, communities across the state of Florida began to emerge from prolonged shelter Wednesday by reopening the most symbolic of places: the beach.

From the Panhandle to the Space Coast, local governments that had closed their shorelines in an attempt to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus announced plans to open limited access to the beach. The decisions followed in the controversial footsteps of Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry, whose community was mocked after reopening Jacksonville Beach over the weekend.

“Let’s not jump and go crazy when we open these up,” Christian Ziegler, a Sarasota County commissioner and vice chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, told the local ABC affiliate after the commission voted Wednesday to allow limited activity on the beach starting Monday. “I don’t expect to see a drum circle on Sunday.”

Officials in Pinellas County have closed their beaches through May 1. This includes Clearwater Beach, which shut down after reports of massive spring break crowds congregating on the sand in mid-March. Manatee County beaches remain closed.

The slow return to the shore is, for many communities, among the first signs of a return to normalcy as local and state governments look for a way to safely reopen society amid a novel coronavirus pandemic.

But with new COVID-19 cases climbing at a slower pace than at the beginning of the month — and President and Floridian Donald Trump encouraging states to “Open Up American Again”— state and local officials continued working toward a plan to reopen businesses, parks and beaches.

“I’m not setting arbitrary timetables for anything. But at the same time, if we don’t believe that the hospitals are going to be overrun, if we believe that the public is going to want to continue to see social distancing … there’s obviously got to be a path forward,” Gov. Ron DeSantis told reporters during a news conference Wednesday at the Florida Capitol.

Health experts have cautioned that testing needs to be ramped up significantly to safely reopen society, as only 1 percent of the country has been tested due to widespread testing failures. A recent report in the New York Times cited a Harvard study saying to safely open the country by mid-May, between 500,000 and 700,000 tests daily have to be conducted nationwide; the U.S. is averaging about 146,000 tests a day.

DeSantis, who according to a spokeswoman is loosely coordinating the state’s response along with the governors of Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee, said the state has signed contracts with two new private labs to increase testing capacity in the state by 18,000 samples a day through rapid testing.

He also pushed back against criticisms of Curry’s decision to reopen Jacksonville’s beaches, a decision that led the hashtag #FloridaMoron to trend on Twitter over the weekend.

Related: #Floridamorons trending on Twitter. Here's why.

“For those who try to say you’re morons, I would take you over the folks who are criticizing you any day of the week and twice on Sundays,” DeSantis said.

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DeSantis has adopted a more defiant tone in recent days following weeks of criticism from Democrats and health experts over his resistance to issue a statewide stay-at-home order, which he eventually did on April 1. A Quinnipiac University poll published Wednesday showed that half of Florida voters believe he’s doing a good job with the state’s coronavirus response.

But 61% thought he reacted too slowly to address the problem caused by the virus — and 72% said they wanted a plan to reopen the state driven by health experts.

That same note was struck repeatedly Wednesday by members of working committees brought together by DeSantis’ administration to provide recommendations on how to reopen businesses. Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez, who has announced plans to reopen parks — but not beaches — said during a conference call Wednesday that the state needs to rely on the advice of medical experts “to make sure that whatever they’re recommending is valid medically so that we can limit the spread of the virus.”

In the meantime, Florida’s economy is hurting, and more than 1.7 million unemployment claims have been filed — only 6% of which have been paid out. The travel industry is collapsing, leading the Miami hotel market to post the largest decline for average daily room rate in the county last week.

In the Florida Keys, where there have been three COVID-19 deaths and nearly 42 percent of the private sector workforce is in the hospitality and leisure industry, Monroe County officials said they still don’t have a timetable on when they’ll begin to reopen businesses or reopen the Overseas Highway to visitors.

A plan in the works involves a phased reopening for residents first, but county and state officials said they want to see weeks of cooling in cases before they begin to loosen restrictions.

“How do we release some of this cabin fever that people validly feel?” asked Bob Eadie, administrator of the Florida Department of Health in Monroe County.

DeSantis has asked for recommendations on how to reopen the state by Friday. House Speaker Jose Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, said Wednesday the state should try to accomplish that by providing broad health guidelines that allow small businesses to decide for themselves whether they can reopen safely.

“Universal [Studios] and Disney World and everybody else, God bless ‘em, they’re a big part of our economy. They’re going to figure it out. What the very small businesses are looking for is: ‘Just tell me what I’ve got to do to open my doors,’” Oliva said. “If we try to figure out each business, there’s a billion combinations of businesses, so we’ll never get there.”

Miami Herald staff writers Howard Cohen, Taylor Dolven, Gwen Filosa and David Goodhue, McClatchy DC staff writer Alex Daugherty, and Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau staff writer Lawrence Mower contributed to this report.

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