People came faster than a flock of seagulls chasing a french fry when Florida beaches began reopening Friday as the coronavirus pandemic raged on.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis gave municipalities the go-ahead to reopen during a news conference Friday – if it can be done safely, while observing social distancing guidelines. A day earlier, President Donald Trump rolled out a three-phase approach for reopening the nation.
With the governor’s green light, north Florida beaches were among the first to allow people to return since being closed down by the coronavirus pandemic.
Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry announced that Duval County beaches would reopen Friday afternoon with restricted hours, and could be used only for walking, biking, hiking, fishing, running, swimming, taking care of pets and surfing. Visit Florida lists beaches by county in Florida and their status: closed, restricted or otherwise.
The beaches will be open from 6 to 11 a.m. and 5 to 8 p.m local time, Curry said in a video posted to Twitter. Gatherings of 50 or more people are prohibited.
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Delcia Dias (left) and Monica Dias celebrate the beaches opening on a limited basis during the coronavirus pandemic on Jacksonville Beach.
“Folks, this could be the beginning of the pathway back to normal life, but please respect and follow these limitations,” Curry said in the video. “We’ll get back to life as we know it, but we must be patient.”
At his news conference in Fort Lauderdale, DeSantis said it was important for people to have outlets for getting exercise, sunshine and fresh air.
“Do it in a good way. Do it in a safe way,” he urged.
But beachgoers may not have followed the best social distancing practices while dipping their toes back in the water.
“It was a mad dash here for the ocean,” CNN’s Randi Kaye said from a beach in Jacksonville.
In response to a reporter’s question Saturday at the White House coronavirus task force briefing about whether it was concerning that people were crowding Florida beaches, Dr. Deborah Birx, who serves as coronavirus response coordinator, said she wouldn’t second-guess Florida’s decision to reopen beaches.
“If the county health directors believe that that’s appropriate for their county, then I’m not going to second judge an individual’s approach to this,” Birx said.
WFLA News tweeted a video of Jacksonville Beach just 18 minutes after the beach reopened Friday evening, which showed a crowd near the water, walking, jogging, on bikes and swimming.
“Floridians are already soaking up the sun,” the tweet reads.
Action News Jax CBS47/FOX30 meteorologist Garrett Bedenbaugh tweeted an image of people back on the beach with a reminder: “Don’t forget the social distancing.”
Some people tried to sun on the beach and were reprimanded by authorities before moving on.
“There have been a few people trying to lay out on the beach, Jax Beach Police are educating them and they are packing up. Seems to be isolated to the area south of the pier,” Jon McGowan tweeted.
There have been a few people trying to lay out on the beach, Jax Beach Police are educating them and they are packing up. Seems to be isolated to the area south of the pier. pic.twitter.com/inLE2jE5if
— Jon McGowan (@JonMcGowanFL) April 17, 2020
On the second day of reopening, the shore in Jacksonville looked more sparsely populated, as seen in newer photos shared to Twitter by McGowan.
“930 am. Day 2 of Jacksonville Beach reopening. Lots of walkers, but very spaced out. Mostly in pairs,” McGowan wrote.
As of Saturday morning, Florida had at least 25,269 cases of coronavirus and 740 Florida residents had died, according to the Florida Department of Health.
Florida officials were criticized for being to slow to close beaches during the spring break period. Most counties closed their beaches or kept them open under very restricted conditions. Other more high-profile beaches in South Florida, including Miami Beach, were closed by state order.
On social media, the announcement that some beaches would reopen was met with criticism.
“One of the many lessons this pandemic has provided is to never forget that Florida is run by idiots,” Cristian Moreno wrote on Twitter. “They are pushing seriously for dumbest state in the nation.”
One of the many lessons this pandemic has provided is to never forget that Florida is run by idiots. They are pushing seriously for dumbest state in the nation.https://t.co/EyaWXAyUP3
— Cristian Moreno (@CristianMorenoD) April 17, 2020
Edward Hardy, a political commentator on Twitter, also voiced his concern.
“Millions of people have yet to be tested, yet Jacksonville’s beaches have reopened Is Florida trying to make the coronavirus outbreak worse?” he wrote.
Millions of people have yet to be tested, yet Jacksonville’s beaches have reopened
Is Florida trying to make the coronavirus outbreak worse?https://t.co/SVrQbBNAKK
— Edward Hardy (@EdwardTHardy) April 17, 2020
Others were less concerned.
Chris Imeson of Ponte Vedra Beach lives about a 10-minute walk from the beach, in the northeast part of the state. He says he’ll definitely go to the beach and is excited about being able to do so.
“Honestly, I don’t understand why people are so upset,” Imeson told The Associated Press. “We have really uncrowded beaches. … I can’t tell you I’ve ever been within six feet of another person other than my little boy.”
He’s unemployed because of the crisis and is homeschooling his young son. They’ve only gone out in the yard and for walks around the neighborhood.
“We’ve been excessively careful,” he says. “I don’t want to understate how serious the coronavirus is, but I would be more concerned about going to a convenience store than going to the beach.”
Imeson says he believes people saw images of spring breakers on beaches before they were shut down and assume all of Florida’s sand is covered in drinking, partying crowds.
“I might take my dog for a walk at sunrise on the beach. The idea that we’re close to people is crazy. We’re never close to anyone at the beach. There’s so much space. People aren’t on top of each other,” he says.
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Contributing: Julia Thompson, USA TODAY; The Associated Press
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Coronavirus: Florida beaches reopen to big crowds during pandemic