Pensacola Beach and Perdido Key beaches will remain closed because of coronavirus
Escambia County Commissioners voted 4-1 to keep Pensacola Beach and Perdido Key beaches closed until further notice because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The move comes a day after Gov. Ron DeSantis issued a "safer at home" order for people to only leave their homes for essential services and activities. The order goes into effect at 12:01 a.m. Friday.
DeSantis' order did not address local beaches, and the order considers walking, swimming and fishing essential activities.
With the county vote on Thursday, Escambia County public beaches will remain closed until the commission votes to reopen.
Commissioner Doug Underhill, whose district includes Perdido Key, was the lone no vote against keeping the beach closed.
Underhill has advocated over the last week to open the beach and relax other social distancing guidelines such as allowing restaurants to open dining rooms back up at a low capacity.
During the meeting, Underhill made a motion to reopen the county's public beaches, but his motion died for lack of support from any other commissioner.
"The reality is that while this is certainly a very serious matter, it is a matter that definitely requires social distancing and heightened sense of personal hygiene," Underhill said. "The closure of the beach is not necessary for us to be able to maintain that posture."
For the first time in its history, the County Commission took written comments via email, and received 85 written comments on the issue of opening the beach. At least 61 of the comments supported reopening the beach, with many of the comments coming from area surfers who wanted the beach open at minimum for surfing.
Commissioner Jeff Bergosh, who last week had said he was supportive of opening the beach, said Thursday that opening the beach would send the wrong message in light of the governor's order that people should be staying home.
"There's nothing that I would like more than to open those beaches again, but I just received an overwhelming number of phone calls and emails from constituents in District 1 who were concerned," Bergosh said. "And this is something that people have never seen before."
Commissioner Robert Bender, whose district includes Pensacola Beach, said he believed at this point if the county reopened the beach, the past two weeks of economic pain would be for nothing if the virus broke out in the community.
"We want to come back strong, and we will," Bender said. "But with this virus, we don't know where we are in its attack."
Bender said if it does become safe to open the beach again, he would support calling an emergency meeting to get the beach back open.
"We don't want to be like Italy, where they were having to decide who got the ventilator and who didn't," Bender said. "And so that's what we're trying to protect our community from having to go through."
Jim Little can be reached at email@example.com and 850-208-9827.