Like rubbernecking when passing a wreck on the highway, many heads turned here, looking south, hearing the news out of Jacksonville. The big city next door was reopening their beaches as of 5 p.m., Friday, April 17, 2020, to kick off the weekend.
No doubt there was some anticipation here, that local Amelia Island beaches might reopen, following Jacksonville’s lead. After the Jacksonville announcement, Nassau County indicated that Amelia Island’s beaches would be discussed at a 10 a.m. commission meeting on Friday, April 17, 2020.
Local residents awaited the meeting’s outcome. This weekend will mark four weeks since Amelia Island’s beaches were closed.
But “hold your horses,” Amelia Island’s beaches are not opening, yet.
Nassau County Meeting 4-17-2020
During the meeting held Friday, April 17th, Nassau County commissioner, Danny Leeper, noted that there would not be a “knee jerk” reaction to open Nassau County beaches.
Watching the Nassau County meeting live streamed online, it was clear that Nassau County officials did not have a heads up from Jacksonville officials about the decision to reopen Duval’s beaches. Nassau officials had hoped for a regional approach, consultation and planning (i.e. — between northeast Florida coastal counties). But that ship has sailed, with Jacksonville’s action.
Jacksonville’s beaches are opening with certain restrictions, for “essential activities” with limited beach hours. Jacksonville’s Mayor Curry described this as “a pathway back to normal life.” (Watch the JAX news conference video further below).
During the Friday meeting, Nassau County Manager and attorney, Mike Mullin said “we would not recommend opening the beaches in the short term until there is a plan…there are medical issues still out there, and enforcement issues. And we need to consult with the Sheriff.”
Director of Emergency Management, Greg Foster stated “logistical concerns need to be addressed.”
Chairman and commissioner, Danny Leeper commented “When it’s safe to do so, we’ll reopen the beach, if we can safely manage it and also with, of course, restrictions.”
So what’s next for Nassau County? A beach committee discussion will take place on Monday, April 20, 2020. On Tuesday evening, April 21st, the Fernandina Beach city commission will discuss their area of beachfront within the city limits, at their regularly scheduled meeting. Then on April 22, 2020, Nassau County commissioners will meet again.
A potential benefit of waiting a bit longer to open beaches here in Nassau? Local officials can now evaluate Jacksonville’s social experiment as it unfolds with their beaches reopened.
Whether people visiting JAX beaches this weekend and in following days, are better adhering to social distancing guidelines (than had been the case when the beaches were open before), will soon be known. Also, how Jacksonville is able to enforce or control behavior on the beaches.
Jacksonville beaches are opening in the morning, from 6 a.m. to 11 a.m., and evening from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m.. They are allowing walking, running, biking, fishing, swimming, surfing and taking care of pets. Note that swimming and surfing is “at your own risk.” Plus “no sunbathing, towels, blankets, chairs, coolers, grills, etc. will be permitted on Duval County beaches during the restricted hours they are open.”
Benefit Vs. Risk
Will unforeseen issues arise in Jacksonville? Nassau County officials will learn from what happens next door. And another big question — whether Jacksonville will end up having to shut down the beaches, again, if things go awry. If one thing is for certain, it’s that plenty of uncertainty in the medical field still exists about COVID-19, with many unanswered questions.
Keeping Lifeguards Safe
One Nassau County consideration, among many, has to do with whether swimming/surfing would be allowed when beaches do reopen.
Normally, when Fernandina’s Shrimp Festival happens the first weekend in May (coronavirus cancelled the 2020 festival), it kicks off lifeguard season. Initially during May, lifeguards go on duty at Amelia Island’s beaches for weekends only. Then, traditionally, ocean rescue goes to a daily summer lifeguard schedule starting Memorial Day weekend.
With the threat of COVID-19 still lurking, lifeguards could be at risk, themselves. Their job requires, in emergencies, close contact with the public, in water rescues and other first aid.
St. Johns County Opens Beaches
Just a few hours after Nassau County held its commission meeting, St. Johns County announced they were also partially opening beaches effective Friday, April 17, 2020. According to a news release, St. Johns County beaches “are now open from 6:00 a.m. to 12:00 noon seven days a week for uses that include physical activity and motion. Activities now permitted on St. Johns County Beaches include walking, running, exercise, surfing, biking, fishing, swimming, surfing, and other uses that require physical activity. As lifeguards may not be on duty, all swimming is done at your own risk…”Walk to exercise not to socialize,” said Dawn C. Allicock, M.D., MPH, Director and Health Officer of Florida Department of Health in St. Johns County. “As long as individuals adhere to the CDC guidelines of social distancing, getting exercise and fresh air can be beneficial for our citizens’ physical and mental health.” (See more info at St. Johns government website.)
Meanwhile, In Georgia
Just across the border, Georgia’s Governor took a highly controversial action, reopening the state’s beaches in early April, with some restrictions. In doing so, the Georgia Governor nullified any local level decisions by Georgia’s cities and counties to keep their beaches closed.
Regardless of when Nassau County’s beaches open, and what potential new restrictions are in place, some local residents will be happy with decisions made, and others not. As is always the way with beach issues.
The coronavirus pandemic is an enormously challenging situation for all, to say the least. Amelia Island tourism, that underpins the local economy, has been decimated, as though a tidal wave washed over this beautiful barrier island.
As of 6 pm on April 17, 2020 (see Florida Health Departments COVID-19 dashboard chart above), there are 41 Nassau County resident cases, plus one non-resident. And the good news, no lives have been lost here, to date.
Watch Nassau Meetings Online
When commission meetings are held (both County and City of Fernandina Beach), they can be watched via live stream at the county or city website. Watch video of April 17, 2020 Nassau County discussion about the beaches at government website by clicking here. Those who want to watch the next meeting online (or see the archives of past meetings and videos), go to the Nassau County Clerk’s website. Or visit city of Fernandina Beach website to watch city commission meetings.
Watch the Jacksonville Mayor’s news conference that took local Nassau County officials by surprise: