An allure of island living is close proximity to the beach and waterways. There’s also the popularity of Fernandina’s downtown historic district, and various annual events and festivals throughout the year, enjoyed by locals and visitors alike.
Tourism underpins the local economy, and the business community eagerly welcomes travelers. But now the biggest island resorts are deserted, along with other hotels and vacation rentals, in this surreal pandemic seascape. With Amelia Island’s beaches closed, the Atlantic seashore sits empty.
It’s been more than three weeks since the beaches became off limits. The lack of beach time aside, the ebb and flow of life has been altered for all, in a unsettling way. From sea to shining sea, no one knows what the new normal will be.
Fernandina’s Main Beach
Seen here, the seaside blues at Main Beach on a sunny afternoon. It was a beautiful day for the beach, and a rather warm one for springtime (photo April 8, 2020). Yet, the only beach goers were shorebirds, and benches sat empty.
Island wide, beach parking lots are barricaded to block vehicle entry. There’s an exception, however. While most of Fernandina’s Main Beach parking area is closed off, the smaller lot adjacent to the Sandbar & Kitchen restaurant is open. Food-to-go orders can still be picked up at the walk-up window.
“Essential activities” continue around Amelia Island. This includes trips to the grocery store. Or people just going outside to take a walk or a bike ride. Some continue to go to work and others are working from home.
According to Florida Governor’s Executive Order 20-19 (Essential Services and Activities During COVID-19 Emergency), “essential activities” include outdoor activities, as follows:
“Participating in recreational activities (consistent with social distancing guidelines) such as walking, biking, hiking, fishing, hunting, running, or swimming.”
Executive Order 20-19, “Safer At Home” Section A and B, state:
Section 1. Safer At Home
A. “Senior citizens and individuals with a significant underlying medical condition (such as chronic lung disease, moderate-to-severe asthma, serious heart conditions, immunocompromised status, cancer, diabetes, severe obesity, renal failure and liver disease) shall stay at home and take all measures to limit the risk of exposure to COVID-19.“
B. “In concert with the efforts of President Trump and the White House Corona virus Task Force to fight COVID-19, and based on guidance provided by Florida Surgeon General and State Health Officer, Dr. Scott Rivkees, all persons in Florida shall limit their movements and personal interactions outside of their home to only those necessary to obtain or provide essential services or conduct essential activities.”
Nassau County, FL COVID-19 Cases
How many in Nassau County have been diagnosed with COVID-19? There are 34 positive cases as of April 13, 2020 (of course, the numbers can change daily). The data is from the Florida Health Department’s COVID-19 dashboard. Thankfully, no deaths have been attributed to coronavirus to date here in Nassau County, Florida. So that’s some good news.
Beaches Remain Closed
With Amelia Island beaches closed, some seek alternative places to go for a walk, a jog, or a bike ride. There are pet lovers around here, many who used to walk their dogs on Amelia’s pet-friendly beaches. More dog walkers are spotted along sidewalks (and some continue to take dogs into the Greenway). There does appear to be more awareness to respect the space of others, when out doing “essential” recreational activities.
Many area residents have lost jobs or been furloughed in this tourism-driven economy. Reportedly, 2,700 Amelia Island tourism-related employees are out of work, abruptly. This includes 1,000 employees of Omni Amelia Island Plantation. The oceanfront golf resort shut down operations for about a month and a half (through May 15, 2020).
While the Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island remains open, the employee parking lot on Julia Street sits vacant. Many have been furloughed, with almost all hotel rooms empty.
Egans Greenway Trail Activity
Fernandina’s Egans Greenway appears to be attracting more people than usual. Families have kids at home with schools closed, yearning for a bit of outdoor activity. There are also those working from home, getting out for an exercise break.
Photos seen here were taken March 31, 2020. For perspective, more people in the Greenway than usual, was seeing around 25 on this particular day. This was within a third of a mile section on the south side, (closest to the Jasmine Street entrance). Normally, it’s an emptier trail.
For those who plan to utilize Egans Greenway, please follow social distancing guidelines. Some jogged solo, a few families were biking or pushing a stroller. There were also a few couples, plus some “groups” that had four or five adults.
The baby alligators in the Greenway, however, were not following social distancing protocol. When around bodies of water in Florida, follow the guidance from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission depicted below.
Warning signs are posted at the Greenway entrances about alligators. The signs say “Alligators can be dangerous and should not be approached, frightened, or fed. Please give them the respect they deserve. Keep your distance!” Heed the warnings. Note that in springtime and summer, alligators are more active in warmer months. And female gators are more aggressive when they have babies. Do stay back from the water’s edge. Alligators are sometimes on a Greenway trail, out of the creek’s water. Err on the side of caution — go back instead of walking or biking past a gator. While alligator attacks, in general, are rare, you don’t want to become one of those statistics.
Curbside pickup signs have popped up on sidewalks at restaurants in downtown Fernandina Beach. Some Amelia Island restaurants have made the difficult decision to close temporarily. While many shifted to a food-to-go format with curbside pickup and/or delivery. It was a necessary adjustment since the Governor’s previous executive orders had restricted restaurant capacity to 50%, at first, but soon after shut down on site dining completely. There’s been a strong community effort to promote and help support local restaurants.
Boat Ramps Remain Open
If ever there’s a time to have a boat, it’s right now. Mariners can still hop aboard and cruise around the vast waterways that surround Amelia Island. Private boating activity seems brisk. Parking lots near public boat ramps have plenty of empty trailers awaiting return of their owners. But even with the freedom the waterways provide, there are also social distancing restrictions for boaters.
Florida Boating Restrictions
According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, FWC Executive Order No. 20-09, during the COVID-19 pandemic, these new boating restrictions apply:
“…all waters of the state to be a boating-restricted area and the owners and operators of recreational vessels, as defined ins. 327.02, F.S., thereon are subject to the following restrictions:
A. Recreational vessel occupancy is limited to no more than 10 persons per vessel; and
B. A minimum distance of 50 feet between recreational vessels and any other vessel shall be maintained; This distance provision does not apply to permitted mooring fields, public or private marinas, or any other permanently installed wet slips, and does not apply to vessels underway unless they are tied, rafted or moored to another vessel.”
George Crady Fishing Bridge Is Closed
The southend’s George Crady fishing bridge over the Nassau Sound is closed (shut down by the state, it’s part of Amelia Island State Park). Those without a boat who used to cast lines from the fishing bridge or along the ocean beaches, have limited options now. Some alternatives are lakes and ponds around Nassau County, fishing for bass, instead.
How & When To Reopen The Beaches
Should the beaches be reopened or remain closed? Needless to say, opinions vary. Around nine miles of Amelia Island’s beachfront is locally controlled by the city of Fernandina Beach and Nassau County. While Florida’s state parks are closed, there has not been a statewide closure of Florida’s beaches. Thus, whether the beaches remain closed or reopen, is up to local officials.
Nassau County’s emergency management officials, including the Director for the Florida Department of Health Nassau County, commissioners, and local law enforcement, will evaluate public safety and decide how and when to open the beaches.
Some places in Florida are experimenting with opening beaches for recreational “essential activities,” — such as walking, jogging, biking, fishing — like Volusia County’s notorious Daytona Beach. Just across the border, Georgia’s Governor took a highly controversial action, reopening the state’s beaches April 3, 2020, with some restrictions. In doing so, the Georgia Governor nullified any local level decisions by Georgia’s cities and counties who had closed their beaches.
Neighboring Duval County/Jacksonville, shut down their beaches at 5 p.m. on Friday, March 20, 2020. It seemed Amelia Island’s beaches instantly became a magnet pulling more people here. The city of Fernandina decided in the afternoon on March 21st, to shut down their stretch of beachfront, effective a few hours later, at 5 p.m. Then, within 37 hours of JAX beaches closing, Nassau County closed its beaches effective 6 a.m. on Sunday, March 22, 2020.
As we all know, prior to the beaches closing here and elsewhere, some were not following social distancing guidelines. Enforcement is another new burden and dilemma placed on government officials. Guidelines and executive orders attempt to control public behavior and rely on personal responsibility. But people have different views, make their own choices, and don’t react in the same way to practically any situation. This includes the first global pandemic of modern times, since the Spanish flu of 1918.