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Panama City Beach Almost A 'Ghost Town' Amid Coronavirus Pandemic

Valerie Crowder

Residents and tourists are searching for alternatives after Bay County shutters its beaches. The move follows similar closures up and down Florida's nearly 1,400 miles of coastline.

The calls of seagulls and waves rushing to shore are the only sounds along the white sand in Panama City Beach. 


After local leaders closed the beaches on Friday, people on vacation in the popular tourist town are finding other things to do. Shops and fast food restaurants remain open. In parking lots just behind beach access points, families are catching glimpses of the waves from afar.  And at the M.B. Miller County Pier, the only spot beyond the high-rises and dunes that's still open to the public, people equipped with fishing rods and tackle boxes are hoping for a bite. 

“It’s weird. It’s like a ghost town, almost. But it's beautiful," said Luke Pruiett, 15, a Satellite Beach resident. "The pier is beautiful. I’m glad they kept it open to fishermen.”


Luke and his brother Joe Pruiett, 25, were among dozens of others fishing from the Bay County-owned pier late Saturday afternoon.


Joe Pruiett says he flew down to Florida from Michigan and arrived in the beach town only two days before local leaders closed access to the Gulf waters. 


Credit Valerie Crowder
Luke Pruiett (left) and his brother Joe Pruiett (right) look out at the empty shoreline in Panama City Beach on Saturday, March 21, 2020.

“From our hotel, looking out, there was never big groups or like a lot of people hanging out. It was just single people or families hanging out together," Pruiett said, adding that local officials' need to stop "big spring break parties" to stop community spread of the coronavirus is understandable. 


Hours after city council members unanimously voted to close access to the sand, county commissioners passed an accompanying ordinance shutting down beach property within their jurisdiction. 


At first, local officials were reluctant to declare the beach off-limits, even after spring breakers flocked to the tourist town. But when those young people defied Gov. DeSantis's executive order to limit gatherings to 10 people, commissioners said they had no choice. 


"We need to do the right thing," said County Commissioner Robert Carroll. "We need to ask them to go back to their communities." 


The city-owned shoreline remains closed through Thursday, while the county's closures last until Friday. Local leaders will decide later this week whether or not to reopen the beach. 


The decisions came one day after Walton and Okaloosa Counties shut down their beaches. Leaders in Pensacola also closed access to the sandy shore on Friday. 


Joe Pruiett, one of many visitors who travel to the beach town during the busy tourism season, says he's not much of a "beach bum," but he and his family were enjoying fishing from their boat. The beach closure also means the boat launches are off-limts. For now, he's settling for pier fishing, he said. 


"It's kind of a bummer," he said. "Glad that we're able to be out here fishing." 





Valerie Crowder hosts and produces state and local newscasts during All Things Considered. Her reporting on local government and politics has received state and regional award recognition. She has also contributed stories to NPR newscasts.