On the same day that Florida reported 58 deaths from the novel coronavirus — its highest daily toll since the pandemic began — DeSantis told reporters that it’s essential that Floridians get exercise outdoors.
“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 said. “He’s just jogging. Going forward, I think we’ve got to be promoting people to get exercise.”
While DeSantis never ordered a statewide closures of beaches, his comment Friday gave the green light to local officials such as Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry (R), who announced that Duval County’s beaches would reopen Friday. Curry banned certain items, including towels and chairs, and limited hours to 6 to 11 a.m. and 5 to 8 p.m. to deter people from gathering for a long time.
“This can be the beginning of the pathway back to normal life,” Curry said. “Please respect and follow these limitations. Stay within the guidelines for your safety as well as for the safety of your neighbors.”
The droves that showed up at Jacksonville’s beach largely ignored Curry’s restrictions. “People were seen swimming, biking, surfing, running and fishing,” CNN reported. Saturday evening, people were still flocking to multiple Florida beaches, but officials said it wasn’t a problem.
“While there was a large crowd when the beaches reopened, people are following guidelines,” said Nikki Kimbleton, Curry’s spokeswoman. “There’s been a vast difference in crowd size since that initial 5 p.m. Friday opening.”
In a Saturday tweet, Curry wrote: “Spoke to Sheriff Williams @jsosheriff a few minutes ago. He said all Beaches are pretty much clear and They, Deputies @JSOPIO, had no issues neither did the beaches agencies....the community responded. Good work Jacksonville.”
On Friday, Curry also retweeted another city leader who shared a photo of a near-empty section of a beach.
Thank you Jacksonville. I appreciate your social distancing and responsible behavior as we opened our beaches for walking, swimming, running etc. No groups congregating. 5 pm to 8pm opening tonight. This is the 7pm shot from Councilman Diamond from the beach. Well done Jax https://t.co/VPVrhG40zC— Lenny Curry (@lennycurry) April 18, 2020
Asked about the beaches at a Saturday evening briefing, Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, said she would not second-guess county health directors and would need to know relevant counties’ case numbers.
More local officials are following the Jacksonville area’s lead. St. Johns County, where St. Augustine is, said its beaches would reopen for physical activity from 6 a.m. to noon. Miami-Dade’s mayor said during a Saturday news conference that his county would also move forward with reopening beaches, although he didn’t specify when.
The governor’s office said he left the beach reopening decision for local authorities because “Florida is not a state where a cookie-cutter solution works.”
“Governor DeSantis does not oppose the prudent opening of beaches with restrictions,” DeSantis spokeswoman Helen Ferre said.
DeSantis refused to close beaches at the height of the spring break rush, saying visitors could maintain social distancing, despite photos and videos from beaches across the state indicating that people were not doing so.
Dozens of college students who had vacationed in Miami and other party spots have tested positive for the virus since returning to their home states of Texas, Florida and Wisconsin.
DeSantis has said he will follow President Trump’s lead on closures, although Trump has shifted positions and indicated that he will leave those decisions to the states. Florida’s stay-at-home order is in effect through April 30.
On Saturday, DeSantis stressed the importance of reopening and getting people back to work, adding that he will share the names of whom he’s appointed for a task force focused on reopening Monday. This comes as other states are making their own preparations to restart business.
South Carolina announced that it was reopening beaches Saturday.