By Cindy Jackson
April 20, 2020
A conference call led by Commissioner Chairman Daniel Leeper with other community leaders took place at 4PM, April 20th. The call lasted about 30 minutes.
At the end of it all, Sheriff Bill Leeper perhaps expressed it best – noting that everyone on the call wants to re-open the beaches, however, no one wants to re-open the beaches until it is safe to do so.
In starting the meeting, Commissioner Danny Leeper noted that for everyone who wants the beaches open, there are just as many who want them to remain closed. He went on to say he would like to have a goal in mind and that goal is (theoretically), May 1.
City Commissioner Dr. Ross was the first to express his concerns and articulated several. Those concerns include:
• the fact that the situation continues to evolve and change
• the number of cases in Nassau County continues to rise
• adequate testing is not available in Nassau County
• no one knows for sure the effect of opening the beaches. (whereas there may be anecdotal evidence, there is no true medical data available
• the more people here, the higher is the chance for spreading the virus
• how will our beaches be monitored?
• do we want to expose Nassau County lifeguards to the virus and to carry the heavy responsibility of enforcing the guidelines that may be adopted?
Dr. Ross went on to say that while Governor DeSantis sanctioned the opening of Jax beaches, state parks remain closed, and short-term rentals are still banned.
Dr. Eugenia Ngo-Seidel, as Director for the Florida Department of Health Nassau County said that she has not heard what the Governor plans to do with State parks. She stated that Nassau County currently has 45 cases and notes that the number of current cases continues to increase.. In addition, while more tests are available (some 1112 have been performed here), the availability of tests is still not at the level she would like to see. Before completing her status reported, Dr. Ngo-Seidel did state that Nassau County still has patients in the hospital as a result of the Corona virus.
Greg Foster Emergency Management Director, confirmed that his department is in contact with other regional communities (other than Duval County and Georgia), and reported that most are struggling with finding solutions to the same challenges facing Nassau County – including the health and well-being of lifeguards.
Unlike Jacksonville, which has a dedicated beach police force, here at Nassau County beaches, it is the lifeguards, (who are typically high school and/or college students) who are in charge of enforcing beach rules and regulations – as well as saving lives.
In his report, Sheriff Leeper shared that his department has received about 60 calls relating to people on the beach – and most of those calls were received in the area of Peters Points, Scott Road and American Beach. Deputies have responded to calls but no citations have been issued. Leeper added that as a result of schools being closed, he has four additional officers on the scene– SROs (Student Resource Officers) who are helping to patrol the beach areas.
Ty Silcox, Fernandina Beach Fire Chief, said that his department plans to move forward with a target date for beach openings being May 1 but added that just because staff may be trained and ready, by May 1, that does not mean that May 1 is the date they will be deployed.
Like City Manager Dale Martin had earlier stated, he is concerned that such a decision, — using lifeguards to uphold social distancing and other protections that may be required for when Nassau County beaches do open — may be exposing them unduly. In some cases, when the lifeguards are minors, there is also an issue of parental permission.
Gil Langley, Amelia Island Convention and Visitors Bureau President and CEO, agreed with the group saying “being cautious as we move forward” is a wise approach. Langley had given a very grim report on the status of the hospitality just a few weeks ago. He did share that since the Jax beaches had opened, a number of Fernandina Beach hotels reported having received an uptick in calls looking to make reservations.
One participant in the conference call shared that he had heard “rumblings” of some sort of a “Storm the Beach” movement being discussed.
Before the call was ended, Dr. Ross said, almost prophetically, and this is paraphrased, that the City and County could make all sorts of plans but ultimately, it’s the Corona Virus that is in control.
The group appeared to be in agreement that until the state parks are open on the south and north end of the Island, City and County beaches should remain closed.
The City of Fernandina Beach plans to discuss the issue further at its regularly scheduled meeting on Tuesday, April 21 at 6PM and the Board of County Commissioners as it on its agenda for April 22 at 10am.