The state of Florida passed two milestones in the coronavirus pandemic this week: its deadliest day yet, and the reopening of several public beaches.
Hundreds of people flocked to the newly opened beaches in northern Florida on Friday evening, just two weeks into Gov. Ron DeSantis’ monthlong stay-at-home order began. The state is the first of several to start slowly reopening public spaces even as the novel coronavirus continues to spread.
DeSantis announced Saturday that K-12 schools would remain closed for the rest of the school year, saying he did not want to force families who were uncomfortable with the idea to return to classrooms. Just a day earlier, however, he greenlit the reopening of some beaches, arguing that Floridians needed fresh air.
“I think people, they’re gonna be responsible, they’re gonna be safe, but they want to get back into a routine,” he said Saturday.
Duval and St. Johns Counties, as well as the city of Mexico Beach, opened their beaches Friday for “essential activities” like running, fishing and surfing. The beaches will run on limited hours in the morning and evening, and activities like sunbathing will still be prohibited. Police were seen manning the beaches on Friday and Saturday, asking residents to maintain social distancing and avoid large gatherings.
“This can be the beginning of a pathway back to normal life,” Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry said in a video statement. “But please respect and follow the limitations.”
He added: “The data for Duval County is encouraging. For now, we need to stay the course and continue taking precautions.”
Despite the mayor’s warnings, hundreds of people flocked to the beaches in Duval County Friday, some engaging group sports like volleyball or spikeball. Photos of the scene drew outcry on social media, spawning the hashtag #FloridaMorons, as well as disdain from officials elsewhere in the state.
“When a person doesn’t believe in science, they do dumb things,” Lake Worth Beach City Commissioner Omari Hardy tweeted. “When a person in power doesn't believe in science, they do dumb things that hurt the public. This move is so dumb that I had to make sure it wasn’t fake news. You guys, it isn’t fake news.”
Miami Mayor Francis Suarez, who contracted coronavirus himself, called the reopening in Jacksonville “very concerning,” adding that Florida was “not out of the woods yet” and the consequences of reopening too soon were “very, very scary.”
“When they talk about the curve flattening and the curve descending, we still have not seen a major descension, what we’re seeing is more of a plateau in the state of Florida,” he told MSNBC on Saturday. “And I’m concerned that if we’re not careful that we could see another flare up.”
That state's deadliest day yet occurred Tuesday, when a reported 72 people died of the virus in 24 hours. The number of confirmed cases in the state was still increasing on Saturday, bringing the totals to 25,269 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 740 deaths. Nearly 3,500 people in the state have been hospitalized due to the virus, according to the Florida Department of Health.
Along with announcing school closures Saturday, DeSantis said that a task force would also begin meeting daily next week to work on reopening businesses. He added that the state was considering opening four testing labs and was working with commercial labs to produce test results in 24 hours or less.
Florida was not the only state moving toward a gradual reopening. In Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order this week allowing state parks to reopen Monday, though visitors would still be required to wear masks and stay six feet away from anyone not in their household. Abbott also said restrictions on elective medical procedures would be loosened Wednesday and retail stores could open for curbside pickup on Friday.
Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves also ordered state parks and beaches to reopen from next week, but some local authorities insisted the order allowed them to open immediately. Officials in Harrison County were spotted removing “beach closed” signs from the boardwalk as early as Friday afternoon.
In Alabama, business owners were reportedly confused by a set of suggestions released by the Small Business Emergency Task Force this week, suggesting that everything from jewelry stores to waxing salons could reopen “immediately.” The suggestions have yet to be adopted. Gov. Kay Ivery plans to announce which restrictions will be lifted by April 28.
President Donald Trump has also been pushing for states to reopen, amid fears of a possible economic depression. The president initially suggested the country could be open for business by Easter, but walked that back after seeing apocalyptic scenes out of hospitals in New York City.
The White House issued a three-step guide for governors to use when deciding to reopen, titled “Opening Up America Again.” The plan suggests lifting lockdown orders as soon as a 14-day downward trajectory in cases of COVID-like symptoms and positive tests can be documented.
“America wants to be open and Americans want to be open,” Trump said in a press conference Thursday. “A national shutdown is not a sustainable long-term solution.”