Leaders vote to reopen Sarasota County beaches April 27 for exercise

Leaders in Sarasota County have voted to reopen beaches, but with restrictions. 

During Wednesday's meeting, commissioners voted unanimously to reopen county beaches April 27, but only for "essential" activities, outlined by Governor Ron DeSantis' stay-at-home order.

This will include walking, running, fishing, surfing and swimming with the following restrictions:

- No congregating and visitors must practice social distancing.
- No lounging, coolers or alcohol, umbrellas/towels/chairs, etc.
- No access to parking lots, concession stands or playground. 

The sand will reopen on Monday, April 27, but parking lots to the beach areas will remain closed. Commissioners to reopen parking in phases, over the next two weeks.

"It's important for us to start taking steps forward," said Commissioner Christian Ziegler. 

Commissioner Michael Moran agreed. 

"You know the seriousness of this virus, and most importantly you know what to do to protect yourself," he said. 

You won't be able to attend the Sunday night drum circle or group yoga on the beach. You can walk, bike, swim and run. 

The county says don't plan on laying gout in the sun or gathering in a large group. 

"This isn’t a place to go and have a party it’s a place to give more opportunities to get out and walk, get out in the fresh air, similar to our other parks," said Commissioner Hines. 

In Charlotte County, beaches are also scheduled to open for walking and jogging on Monday, but their commissioners said they could open up even sooner, now that Sarasota County announced it will reopen beaches for exercise too.

"This has to do with mental health. People are getting cooped up," said Commissioner Nancy Detert. "They are getting used to being isolated. It would be more healthy to be out in the sunshine. Be out on the beach and get some exercise."

"This is a relaxation of restrictions but there are still restrictions. I would expect to see social distancing on the piers," she added.

PREVIOUS: Siesta Key resident builds fence to keep people off private beaches not closed under county order 

She said she would like the commission to look into reopening public parking lots within the next couple of weeks. 

"It's not fair if you don't live near the beaches," Detert pointed out.

Commissioner Michael Moran said he is concerned people may end up parking on private property.

"I do have some heartburn with not opening up parking lots," he said. "I believe people will go down and park in areas that are not open to them."

RELATED: Beachgoers draw circles in the sand, use pool noodles to create social distance

Other commissioners said public parking could be addressed during next week's meeting.

"Just because we are opening up the beaches, it doesn't mean we aren't taking the virus seriously," said Commissioner Christian Ziegler. "We also have to be smart and how we react to it. I think it's important for us to start taking steps forward."

Venice city officials told FOX 13 they will reopen in accordance with the county's decision.

City officials in Sarasota said they will wait to make a decision on reopening beaches as they monitor a coronavirus hotspot in the downtown area.

In other county news, the director of the Department of Health in Sarasota County, Chuck Henry, said under 1,000 tests were administered at the Twin Lakes drive-thru testing site. Pop-up sites have been used to reach other areas for people who can walk-up and don’t have access to a car.

Henry said there are teams working with the homeless to make sure they are practicing social distancing. 

"We have arranged, if necessary, for them to be housed," Henry said. "We work with Salvation Army to make sure they're following best practices."

The National Guard has provided resources to test residents and staff at long-term care facilities.

"We have a high percentage of our population that fall into that vulnerable population because of age," Henry said. "I think it's clear that transmission of the virus has decreased significantly. This curve was flattened and that's a good thing. It's less clear what lies ahead." 

He said the county is not fully stocked with personal protection equipment, "but everyday we are getting more shipments in."

Henry said it would be best if the county is prepared for a possible second wave of cases, and to be able to identify a case and reach out to that patient's contacts. 

"The things we do today, we don't see the results for days from now," he warned. "I believe the level of testing has increased enough to say that we are covering all the ill people."

"We've seen it flatten and even begin to drop a little bit," he added, "but I think we are doing more testing now then we were a month ago. There is a big difference between the number of cases and the number of deaths."

If you feel sick:

The Florida Department of Health has opened a COVID-19 Call Center at 1-866-779-6121. Agents will answer questions around the clock. Questions may also be emailed to covid-19@flhealth.gov. Email responses will be sent during call center hours.

LINK: Florida's COVID-19 website

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