Beach fronts closed until further notice

  • Beach access points are blocked off with various forms of barricades to inform the public of the current beach closures. (photo by Liza Mitchell)
    Beach access points are blocked off with various forms of barricades to inform the public of the current beach closures. (photo by Liza Mitchell)

At 4:30 p.m. March 20, the Jacksonville Beach oceanfront was lined with families, sun worshipers and dog walkers. A half hour later, the Duval County beach was empty and closed indefinitely to help slow the spread of COVID-19.
Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry said in a March 20 news conference that the decision was made in the interest of public safety with input from the mayors of the three Beaches. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis also issued an executive order closing the beaches in Broward and Palm Beach counties until March 31. Beaches in Duval County will remain closed until further notice.
“I understand the concern. The weather is going to be beautiful. People are going to want to be out there soaking up the sun,” said Curry. “In the end, when people congregate on the beaches, even when they try to social distance, when the tides come in it’s virtually impossible. When that happens, you can’t manage it. It’s like ants on a hill.”
Just before 5 p.m. March 20, Jacksonville Beach police mobilized in the parking lot of the lifeguard station. In a coordinated effort, officers and lifeguards initiated the closure by driving along the beach in SUVs, ATVs and lifeguard vehicles, alerting beachgoers that it was time to leave.
“We figured that was the way to do it. Decisively and very politely. We were not forceful and everyone nicely complied and we appreciate that. I would like to thank the community and any visitors for understanding and being respectful to lifeguards and police. People have been very cooperative and understanding. Only a few people have claimed not to have heard of the beach closure and left without incident,” said Rob Emahiser, captain of Ocean Rescue in Jacksonville Beach.
Emahiser said the effort required police and lifeguards to coordinate actions across the board to eliminate any confusion about protocol in each city. While the situation itself is unprecedented, the Beaches cities have worked in unison to close beaches during a hurricane.
“The same thing is affecting the whole area and we should all be on the same page. But I’ve never in 25 years seen the beach actually physically, completely empty. For the hurricanes, there are lots of looky-loos and a lot of observers, curious people coming for the excitement, but we did not have that in this situation. We were concerned that would be a problem, but it was not that terrible,” he said.
Emahiser said this experience could be used to model scenarios of coordinated action in other emergency situations.
“Every time we have a large event like this, we try to take lessons forward from it. We try and learn from it. We’ve done this before during a hurricane and this was even smoother. We’re being very careful here and keeping our staff to a minimum. I’m sure somebody somewhere is getting some unpleasant emails or comments [saying that] this is unnecessary and we can assure everybody that this is necessary,” Emahiser said.
City staff is taking the same precautions, closing most public buildings in Jacksonville, Neptune and Atlantic Beach. The Atlantic Beach Police building is currently open to the public; however, if residents need nonemergency assistance, the city is urging them to call the police station at 904-247-5859 rather than come into the building.
Parking lots in all beach endzones are currently blocked off, some with barricades, safety cones and yellow caution tape, and signs are posted to inform people of the closures. Violators will be considered trespassing. Police and lifeguards are patrolling the beaches to ensure citizens are in compliance.
As of March 24, the Jacksonville Beach Police Department said there have been no violators and they have had no confrontations.
“I want to thank the general public for their cooperation,” said Jacksonville Beach Police Chief Gene Paul Smith.
The public’s cooperation has made enforcement easier and helped with overall public health and safety, said Smith.
The beaches will remain closed indefinitely.
“At some point we will open the beach back up and we do expect to be very busy at that time … [The beach closure] is the right thing to do and the thing that we must do. It won’t be forever,” says Emahiser.