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Beach Closures Continue in Bay, Gulf Counties

empty_panama_city_beach.jpg
Valerie Crowder

Panama City Beach’s main attraction will remain off-limits for at least two more weeks after local leaders extended an order to shut down access to the sandy shore on Thursday to slow the spread of the coronavirus. 

 

“The way that this is going to get solved is by biting the bullet and trying the seclusion and the personal distancing as much as possible for the next couple of weeks to see if we can get through this,” said Council Member Hector Solis, who called the prospect of reopening the beaches “irresponsible.” 

 

Bay County has so far reported three confirmed cases of SARS-CoV-2.  “I thank the Lord that we’re at the numbers that we’re at now,” Solis said. But he says he suspects “there are many more out there."  

 

Leaders in the popular tourist town were at first reluctant to close the beaches, even after college students and families on vacation flooded the area in the early days of the pandemic.  Following the lead of other cities in the region, including Santa Rosa Beach and Destin, local elected officials decided to shut down access to the sand late last week. 

 

In a 3-2 vote, the city council extended that closure this morning until April 9. 

 

Council Member Geoff McConnell also voted to keep the beaches closed, expressing his concern that visitors traveling to the area could bring the virus with them, accelerating its spread. “That’s not something that I really want to have happen to this wonderful community that I call home or to the families or to the residents,” he said. 

 

Some residents suggested the city allow locals back on the beach. However, McConnell explained, that wouldn’t be in the community’s best interest, either. “The police force just doesn’t have the manpower to be able to check every single ID and every single person across that beach and still maintain a presence…to make sure that our crime rate stays as low as it has been,” he said. 

 

Mayor Mike Thomas, who owns two restaurants in the popular tourist town, expressed opposition to continuing the beach closure, which he’s complained hurts local businesses. But it’s not just about the local economy - it’s also personal, he said.  “I like being on the beach. That’s the only reason I live here,” he said. 

 

Bay and Gulf Counties also extended their closures on Thursday. But Mexico Beach hasn’t yet barred people from accessing the shoreline, unlike most of the state’s coastal cities and counties. Officials there are asking people who live outside the small town to stay away at this time.

 

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Credit Valerie Crowder
The parking lot at the Osprey Hotel and Driftwood Lounge in Panama City Beach is almost completely empty on Thursday, March 26, 2020.

Unlike the beaches, local businesses have remained open, but many have lost most of their customers. At the Osprey Hotel and Driftwood Lodge, a waterfront resort in Panama City Beach, Tracy Schoppe, the owner, has been taking calls from people canceling their reservations. 

 

“This is worse than the oil spill,” she said. “I don’t know what to make of it.” 

 

The resort’s occupancy has fallen to 15% - it’s usually at 90% this time of year - and all reservations this week have been canceled, she said. “We expect to be at zero percent occupancy on Saturday,” Schoppe said. 

Her primary concern is her staff, she said. “We’re having to reduce hours because there are no guests,” Schoppe said. “There’s nothing to do. And there’s no money to pay them if there was something to do.” 

 

When the threat of the virus has abated, she’s confident her customers will return, Schoppe said. 

 

“But we don’t know when. There’s absolutely no guidance,” she said. “There’s no crystal ball on how to go forward on this.”