As lawmakers across the country discuss lifting restrictions over the coronavirus, Florida beaches began to reopen on Friday, even while the total number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the state surpassed 25,000.
Gov. Ron DeSantis announced that beaches were permitted to reopen Friday afternoon if they could do so safely; by early evening, some beaches in north Florida had removed police barriers, allowing residents to stroll and surf.
Social distancing orders remain in place, and Jacksonville beaches, which were among the first to reopen, operated on restricted hours from 6–11 a.m. and 5–8 p.m. Officials said that activities should be limited to exercise and pet care; sunbathing and lounging were still prohibited.
"No chairs, coolers, sunbathing, or towels/blankets laid out to sit on," read a tweet from the city of Jacksonville's official account.
Florida's response to the coronavirus pandemic has been haphazard, and DeSantis has faced criticism for failing to act swiftly to address the crisis.
The state only instituted stay-at-home orders on April 3, and DeSantis has made exceptions to the rule for activities like pro wrestling, which he declared an "essential business."
DeSantis initially declined to close beaches at all, arguing that the state should have a "tailored" approach. Many beaches remained open and crowded with spring breakers early on, and the New York Times reported that people returning from Florida had spread the virus in other states.
The decision to reopen some beaches came on the same day that Florida saw 1,400 new cases of the virus — the biggest single-day increase in the number of new infections since the crisis began — according to the Tampa Bay Times.
Florida surpassed 25,270 total cases of the virus as of Saturday morning, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. In the state, 741 people have died from the virus, and 162 of those deaths came from long-term care facilities.
COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, has ravaged nursing homes around the country. As the threat of lawsuits looms, assisted living facilities in Florida have asked DeSantis to block legal action against them — a request that BuzzFeed News reported the governor is taking into consideration.
On Friday evening, despite the limitations on activities, photos showed large crowds gathering at the beach, many of them not wearing protective gear.
While some locals have eagerly returned to the beaches, the decision to reopen public spaces has also caused alarm. One Jacksonville resident told a local news outlet that the decision to reopen scared her.
"This is really a crazy bad idea," Deborah Melvin told First Coast News, saying she knew people who had died from COVID-19.
"I’m afraid," she added. "I’m afraid for myself. I’m afraid for my family."