TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Kevin Sweeny took his 2-year-old daughter on St. Augustine Beach on Saturday for the first time in weeks.
It was something that used to be routine. He lives a short bike ride from the shore and he and his family like to enjoy it as often as they can. That stopped when local governments began closing beaches. Now some areas of Florida are beginning to reopen them with restrictions: no sunbathing, no sitting in folding chairs, no coolers. Just walk, run, swim, fish or surf.
“People were in constant movement. I saw everybody walking and moving and minding their six, seven, 10 feet away from each other. It was certainly not chaos by any means. It was exactly what you would have wanted to see on your beach if you decided to open the beaches today,” Sweeny said. “There were no beach chairs.”
To be clear, the state of Florida never closed the beaches along its 1,350 miles (2,173 kilometers) of shoreline, except in South Florida — a hot spot for coronavirus infections. Decisions on beach closures have been left in the hands of local governments, and when Gov. Ron DeSantis issued a “safer at home” order on April 1, he specifically said walking, running and swimming were essential activities.
After that order, Volusia County, home to the famed Daytona Beach, opened its beaches with restrictions on April 4. While exercise was allowed, beach volleyball wasn't.
But on Friday, a reporter asked DeSantis about Duval County reopening its beaches earlier that day. The governor repeated what he's said all along: exercise is good, just be smart about it.
“I've always promoted essential activities with recreation. You've just got to do it in a way that's going to have low risk,” DeSantis said. “I get a kick out of somebody jogging on the beach in California, like all by his lonesome, and you have a fleet of cops go out there. He's just jogging. Going forward I think we've got to be promoting people to get exercise.”
His response led to a nationwide misconception that he ordered the reopening of beaches, so much so the hashtag #floridamorons was trending on Twitter with criticism about the decision DeSantis didn't actually make. That includes singer and actress Bette Midler.
“Florida reopened some beaches today & they were packed. I guess in a way it makes perfect Florida-sense. To try to get a little sun so you look healthy at your funeral. #FloridaMorons,” Midler tweeted.
Local governments are revising beach closures, and in Duval County, the home to Jacksonville Beach, people are allowed back on the sand from 6 a.m. to 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. Signs were placed along beach access points saying, “DO YOUR PART STAY 6 FEET APART" and clearly specifying “sunbathing, towels, chairs, coolers, group activities, blankets, tents, umbrellas or any item that promotes a stationary presence” is not allowed.
It was a welcome relief for Judi Spann, who used to walk a mile on the beach every day before it was closed.
“It was low tide and it's such a wide beach, there were no problems at all. I didn't see anyone congregating. Everybody was just walking and enjoying being out,” said Spann, who lives four blocks from the beach. “I definitely felt safe. As I was walking, if I saw someone walking toward me, it was really easy to go a few feet out of the way in order to keep my distance from other people.”
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Associated Press writer Kelli Kennedy contributed to this report from Fort Lauderdale.