Walton County Sheriff, Mike Atkinson on Beach Closing Enforcement Policy

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Sheriff: Good afternoon. Thank you for joining us. Today is going to be a quick update on the actions taken by the Walton County Board of Commissioners today in response to the #COVID-19 virus and really the emergency situation facing this county. I’m Walton County Sheriff, Mike Atkinson. I’m joined with South Walton Fire District Chief, Ryan Crawford. We’re gonna talk a little bit about what happened this morning and then how that is going to be implemented here in Walton County. At 9am this morning, the Board of County Commissioners made a decision to close all 26 miles of Walton County Beaches to the general public. I will tell you, the Board of County Commissioners labored over this decision at length. I’ve had the opportunity to speak with all of them. It was a tough decision for them to make. In the end, they made the decision they thought was in the best interest of this community. Now, what does that mean? I’ll just tell you very practically, and I think Chief Crawford could speak to this as well, we were receiving phone calls within about 30 minutes of that action being taken. Sheriff, why haven’t you gotten these people off the beach yet? People are still on the beach. There’s a lot of beach here. And there’s a lot to cover and a lot to do. We’re in the process of working with all our partners, the Board of County Commissioners, their code enforcement, TDC, South Walton Fire District, our own fire rescue personnel, to start an educational campaign to let people know what’s going on. That’s first and foremost. Keep in mind, this is a customer service-oriented business. We have to let people know that there has been a change. I will tell you, immediately we’ve noticed voluntary compliance across the board. We were down at our local parks and were able to see people, you know, listen they’re not pleased, but they understand. And they’re complying. And that’s what we want. We’re looking for voluntary compliance. I want to be clear. We are not dragging people off the beach in handcuffs. You know, as I said, we’re not jack-booted thugs. We’re in the business of public safety and of customer service. We’re going to carry out this order with a commonsense expectation. Now, we understand, or we ask you to understand, this is a very trying time. It’s unprecedented time for both Walton County and for the nation. We understand that our small businesses, that this is our life blood. This is where our community supports itself. We’re very cognoscente of that. And we appreciate so much our small business and our residence being willing to work with us on them. I gotta tell you I’ve been super pleased with a number of businesses that have spoken to both myself and Chief Crawford. You know, they say, listen Sheriff, we’re gonna voluntary comply, in fact, I talked to one of the biggest beach vendors a little while ago, La Dulce Vida, said hey listen, we’re gonna help them pull back. I was talking to a local seafood market, Sheriff, we’re taking these steps to help the community. So, most of our neighbors are working really really hard to try and help us comply and understand that this a difficult time. I ask you to consider this is not a one-day event. This is not a blizzard. It’s a winter. It’s a long term. We got to get through this, and we will only get through this working as good neighbors and with cooperation. Your Sheriff’s office, your South Walton Fire District, your BCC personnel, they’re going to be professional and they are going to provide you with customer service. You may not agree with the action the Board of County Commissioners has taken. But understand the spirit in which they took that action. And that is in the best interest of this community. So, with that, I would open it up to questions for either Chief Crawford or myself. Chief, anything particular you want to address? Chief: No, Sheriff, I think you covered it. I think what I would want to convey is we’re resource partners. We work well with the Sheriff’s Office, Walton County Fire Rescue, our local health care providers, our Board of County Commissioners, and specifically, we’re a service provider with the TDC. We do operate the Beach Safety and Education Program, which is our lifeguard service. We’re gonna work very diligently and collaboratively with the Sheriff’s Office and with the TDC to communicate this public education message, the importance of reducing that footprint and complying with this ordinance, really for everybody’s public health. So, we’re asking everybody to comply and make our jobs a little bit easier with pushing that mission out. Audience: So, what’s gonna happen with the lifeguards and employees on the beach? Chief: So, the question is what’s gonna happen with our lifeguards that are operating on the beach? That’s a great question. Our plan is that those lifeguards will be instrumental and intricate in helping enforce this restriction to the beach and that the beaches are closed. You know, that public education piece is critical to what we do day in and day out anyway. Whether it be surf conditions, you know, we’re gonna be out there educating and explaining to them the importance of why it’s important that we support this ordinance and keep them off the beach. Audience: I know you guys are talking about signage that’s gonna be going up. When is that happening and where? Sheriff: So, it is in route now. I mean, starting at 5:00 in the morning, we’ll have a combined probably 40 to 60 people working both the TDC staff and additional help from South Walton Fire District and BCC staff putting up signs at public beach exits or access points. We’re out there now. We’ve got deputies on the beach. We’re out walking around talking to people letting them know. There’s got to be a reasonable level of expectation of us to get this thing done in a timely manner. I think I said earlier, we had people calling within 30 minutes and go hey, there’s still people on the beach. You’re not doing your job. Slow down. Commonsense. We’re gonna do this as quickly as we can but with as much balance and nuance as we can as well. Audience: And maybe was the message to the ones you told hey, you gotta get off this beach, and they’re like, we just don’t want to? Like what’s the next step after that? Sheriff: My daughters want Christmas to come twice a year but that’s not happening either. You know, at the end of the day, we want to, we’re gonna do everything we can to educate you and help you get in compliance. But if your end all be all is that you’re just not gonna do it, then you’re forcing our hand. Yeah, absolutely, could that end up in someone’s arrest? Yeah, it could. But let’s be pragmatic. We’re trying to keep people out of jail with the COVID thing. So, what we do is ask you to use a little commonsense in this regard. You know, but are there gonna be people like that? There are. There are for sure. Audience: How does this impact the privately owned beaches? Sheriff: Okay, so, I want to be clear in what I’m fixing to offer to you is not an opinion. The question was how does this action affect private beaches? How does this affect crime across the county? There’s two separate questions. I’ll deal with the first. Obviously, this is going to be a drain on resources. There’s no other way to put it. You can’t put 40 to 50 people to work on once specific task without some ramifications. But we will continue to do our job. We will continue to handle the calls in the rest of the county. We will do what needs to be done in a thoughtful and professional manner. And again, thankful for our partners in all of this. The question about private property. So, the way the Board of County Commissioners ordinance was written was that the beaches, all 26 miles, are closed to the general public. The reality of it is is that Walton County is in a unique position where there are a significant amount of the beaches are owned by private entities. The Board has come to the opinion that they are not able to under the 4th Amendment to ask people to get off the beach on private property at this point. Now, let me be pragmatic, some people will say to you well we’ve done this is the past. You know, you do it during hurricanes. What’s the difference? The difference is the amount of time involved in this. Typically, for a hurricane, a national disaster, a hazmat spill, that’s 48-72 hours. So, can they do it? Yeah, they ultimately can. I think what they’re hoping for is voluntary compliance among the private property owners. The difference is we will not allow the general public to customarily traverse private property during this time. That’s probably the most important point about that. I feel like, and I’m optimistic, that most of our private beach owners will voluntarily comply and will stop renting to people and not have 20 and 30 people out there. If they don’t, the Board may very well revisit that. I mean, I can’t tell you that they won’t They made a conscious decision where they’re at. But at this point, we’re asking for voluntary compliance. Audience: So, Sheriff, are you saying that if someone is on their way to a public beach or whatever and they’re tourists that you guys will? Sheriff: They won’t be on their way to public beaches right now. So, the public cannot be on the beach at this point. So, if it was a private beach owner, the way the ordinance is written, and they lived on the beach front and they walk down, no, I don’t have any enforcement authority at current. Audience: Sheriff, maybe just talk about this virus is already scary enough in a sense that making sure people comply with what the governor has said and also other officials, and there are a lot of people who aren’t from here that are here right now. Sheriff: Yeah, I think if you heard Director Holt of the Health Department earlier this morning at our board meeting, and I’ll restate the question was, the difficulty involved in combating a virus, which is not in our traditional realm of service, with spring break. Listen, the reality that’s been incredibly difficult. Thousands and thousands of people are still coming here. You know, everywhere else people are sheltering in place and staring to make some decisions. However, everybody loaded up in their Suburban and said let’s go to Walton County. And so, we literally had thousands of kids at seaside the other day. In really direct disregard for the safety of themselves and for others. So, yes, it’s an issue. Here’s the problem that I’ve struggled with. And it’s quite frankly, I think if I didn’t tell you I’d be lying by omission. So, I’m just gonna be very frank about this. When we say there’s only a COVID, one positive COVID case at this point I think is where we’re at, the reality is we have a lot of residences or patients under investigation. Which is pretty telling where we’re a county with only about 80,000 people. And we, as of this morning, we had more patients under investigation in this county than you had in Escambia, Santa Rosa, Okaloosa, and Bay combined. Combined. Now that may change tomorrow. It may change tomorrow. But it’s incumbent of us to take some kind of action. Audience: Can you explain what you mean by people being under investigation? Sheriff: Yeah, that’s a term. The question was can I explain what I meant by patients being under investigation. It’s a term from the department of health for addresses or patients where there is a suspected belief that they are potentially positive for COVID. And they are awaiting confirmation testing. It doesn’t mean they are all going to be positive. But I think the significant number is pretty telling for a county this size. Audience: Do you know what that number is? Sheriff: It’s about 26 as of right about now. Now that’s subject to change. It could have changed an hour ago. Audience: So, what are people gonna see when they try to go to the beach? Are there gonna be officers at all the beach access points or gate? Sheriff: Yeah, I think a combination of a lot of different folks. They’re gonna see the public beach accesses. They’re going to see signs that say beach closed. Block access there. They’re going to see there may be a South Walton Fire District lifeguard, a TDC code enforcement officer, a beach ambassador, a deputy sheriff, really a combination of all the above. All partners, this is all hands-on deck trying to deal with it. And, you know, again we’re gonna approach it with a customer service and education standpoint. We’re gonna be as nice as people will let us be to them. Audience: Are there currently any officers or any squad cars that are available or being used right now to kind of block people in parking lots or access to? Sheriff: We’re not blocking parking lots. We are starting to appear at the accesses. We’re actually down on the beach right now. We’re talking to people. You know, again, how you feel about this is largely how you feel about the Board of County Commissioners’ action, unfortunately, really boils down to political ideology for a lot of folks. That’s not my business. I’m not into that. What I do is carry out the will of the people in a reasonable, professional manner with due regard to the safety of the citizens. That’s it. That’s all we do. And so, we don’t get into anything that doesn’t, what the reasoning behind it, quite frankly I don’t care. What I am gonna do is, we’re gonna be professional again and courteous. Any other questions? Audience: Yeah, have you heard from the state in terms of whether they’re going to allow you guys to sort of be the enforcement of state regulations? Sheriff: So, we have not heard about that specifically. I know the Board of County Commissioners was reaching out to Topsill State Park. I will tell you I had an opportunity to speak to Governor DeSantos yesterday on a conference call. I did pose that question about Topsill State Park. If the Board took this action, it was the Governor’s direction that, you know, every local entity, every park inside a local entity would very much attempt to comply with what the local governing body was doing. So, I took away from that that they would take steps to try and close Topsill as well. Audience: And how many miles of beach does that entail? Sheriff: Topsill’s about 3 miles, I think. Audience: Chief Crawford, could you talk about your staff is on the beach making sure they’re doing what they’re supposed to but now they’re taking people off the beach in general. Let’s talk about the conversation you have to have with your staff and how they need to approach this new role. Chief: Okay, so the question was what instructions are we gonna provide to our staff, our lifeguards that are operation on the beach to keep folks safe when they’re traditionally used to rescuing people and so forth and now the message is a little different. So, what I would tell you is, believe it or not, we have some experience in this between double red flag conditions, hurricanes, tropical events where we enact through emergency measures to close the beach for the public safety. And our men and women are always involved and engaged with educating the public. You know, the lifeguard in the sense of is not just sitting in a lifeguard tower. It’s really engaging the public from an education standpoint. We’re engaged in missing persons on the beach, medical emergencies, those sort of things. So, you know the message is gonna be very similar to what the Sheriff said. I think it’s gonna be, you know, why the measures are in place, explaining why that these are not ordinary times that we’re dealing with. I mean, I think we can all look around and see there’s some extraordinary measures being taken. And it’s really in an effort for public safety and for the general public health. And so that message is gonna be we can’t have them out there right now. You know, I think we’re all hopeful that this will be a short period of time and won’t be extended. But for now, that’s kind of the message that we’re gonna be conveying. Audience: Sheriff, can you clarify so Spring Breakers are down here from Tennessee, Atlanta, and they’re renting their home that is a private ownership, they are allowed to be on the beach in that home? Sheriff: If it was my druthers, if I had the legal authority to stop them, I would stop them. We are asking homeowners, private property owners to comply with that. Is it possible that a home owner may choose to try and circumvent that. It’s possible, and we’re gonna deal with that as we move forward. But from a purely legal standpoint, it’s a private property matter at this point. But I will tell you, there are extended emergency powers that should they choose to continue to take that route, if they do not police themselves, there is another step to this. So, we’re hopeful that cooler heads prevail in dealing with this. These are extraordinary times. Extraordinary measures are being taken here. And I think it’s just socially in this community, if you’re doing everything you need to do, you’re limiting yourself and your business is taking a hit, if you’re again, if you’re Shrimpers Fish Market and you’re compliant and you’re doing all these extra things to help. If you’re LeDulce Vida, and you’re doing these things to help. If you’re Shrimp Gully who’s reached out to us and said we’re gonna do this to help. We’re self-policing. We’re following these mandates. But by the way, business X, I’m not doing anything. You know, I think there should be some pressure and some consequences for those folks. There’s a big difference between what you can do and what you should do. Audience: So, obviously, with the county and with the state parks, you guys have specific and unquestionable control over 26 miles of beach. What are you gonna do, what message do you have for the folks that are private beach holders, land holders, that don’t necessarily have to comply? Sheriff: Yeah, the Governor’s order under 252, which is the emergency powers, the emergency order that they passed, I am of the opinion that should they not self-police there is another statute 30.291, which deals with the Sheriff’s ability to close and shut down anything deemed to be of a public risk. We try and stay away from that because that’s typically a very short-term thing. But this is unprecedented times. It’s unprecedented times. We want voluntary compliance. We want you to do the right thing. You know, I think I said earlier to someone that I’ve spoken to probably 7 or 8 attorneys this morning either threatening suits or telling us why we’re doing this wrong or how we should do it. That just comes from the business where I’m at as far as I’m concerned. So, we’re gonna ask you to play ball. We’re gonna work with you. But if you’re not going to do the right thing, we’re going to try to make you famous. We want people to know that you’re not doing your part to help this county while trying to make money when everybody else is suffering. I think the public has a right to know that. Audience: So, is that public risk statute, is that something you can act on unilaterally? Sheriff: I can. Yes, I can act unilaterally if it comes down to that. I refrain from that because I believe that that statute is specifically designed for, you know, and eminent threat. I think because the Board of County Commissioners has met, they made a decision. I’m honoring their decision. I think they made what is an intelligent, thoughtful decision. They are expecting compliance across the board. They’re expecting these people to comply. If they don’t, there’s really a couple of options. One the Board may elect to go back. The Board may go back and say, you know what, we’re going to make a decision that all of this, we think that we can win this in court because I assure you they’re going to be sued. That’s just a fact of life in today’s world. I don’t know that I would want to sit in the jury in Walton County and explain why everybody else was complying and doing the right thing, and you decided to sell us out. So, I mean, I guess they can take that chance if they want to. Audience: So, have you considered any sort of benchmarks or trigger points that might prompt you to take that action? Sheriff: Yeah, so from my standpoint, you know, that needs to be an extraordinary thing. What is an extraordinary thing? You decide you’re doing to have an open house party. You decide you’re gonna have a beach wedding in the middle of this. You decide you are going to flagrantly and disregard put other people at risk, yeah, I think that would qualify in my opinion. Again, I hope it doesn’t come to that. Hope it doesn’t come to that. Audience: Sheriff, talk a little bit about how this impact small businesses. You were taking earlier about small businesses are no less important than the large ones. Sheriff: Absolutely, and you know, that’s an important point. The question was how does this fix small businesses as opposed to large businesses? Here are these small businesses that are holding on fighting tooth and nail trying to make their house payment, trying to support their children, that are complying, that are doing the right thing. And yet we have some large businesses that apparently think maybe they’re too important to comply. You know, and that is incredibly frustrating to me as a Sheriff. It’s been frustrating to the Board of County Commissioners who are very concerned about the well-being of the families of Walton County and how this applies. So, we’re gonna do everything we can to support those people that are trying to comply and trying to do the right thing. Audience: Sheriff, is there any action being taken to monitor restaurants and their compliance? Sheriff: So, two things about that. One, and this is where our partners come in. We’re gonna lean heavily on both the department of business and professional regulation and South Walton Fire District to monitor the occupancy requirements, right? So, essentially, as calls come in, we’re gonna attempt to do one of two things. One is have South Walton Fire District to review it and see if that makes sense. And two, in the restaurants, if they are flagrantly out there, we’re gonna try to reach out to PBR, Professional Business Regulation, their license, their occupancy license, their liquor license could all be put at risk. That take a little bit of time. So, let’s just say bar X says, let me back us just a little bit, the Governor said that he’d prefer those to be handled in a regulatory manner to start with. There is a caveat to that in my opinion, which is, if you’re flagrantly disregarding that for the purpose and putting people at risk, then yes, we would take immediate action. So, if Chief Crawford called me and said Sheriff, there are 150 people down here and they’re having a dance party, whatever, I don’t know what you want to call it. We’re gonna ask as nicely as we can. But then after that, we’re going to take corrective action. All I’m saying to you is don’t make me do it. But don’t bet against me doing it. Audience: Is the hope in shutting down the beaches to the general public is to send a message to those coming in? Sheriff: Yeah, I think the message is when you go across the board that, as a family called this morning saying, hey, I’m driving 8 hours with my kids. I need to know if the beach is gonna be closed. First of all, you shouldn’t be doing that. So, that’s A. B, the second part of that is yes, they’re going to be closed. And that’s what we need our vacation rental folks to be honest and tell these people that the beaches are closed. Do not continue to advertise and fill houses with 20-30 people come down here and let them take the money. The beach is closed for the standpoint. Audience: Would you explain why that’s a challenge to occupancy? Chief: Specifically, the question is the challenge to occupancies that have the number of people in them? Absolutely, thank you for your question. So, that’s been an ongoing challenge. We as the South Walton Fire District is the authority having jurisdiction over commercial properties when it comes to enforcing life safety code if you will. We have not jurisdiction over private property. So, we have, there’s no mechanism in place for us to be able to enforce life safety codes on these occupancies that are being classified as single family dwellings that we all know have lots of bedrooms and bathrooms and there’s a lot of people piled in them. So, that’s a challenge for us. It’s a challenge I think globally across all of South Walton when we talk about the capacity of roads, the parking issues, you know, you got a single family occupancy that has parking for two spaces, but there’s 25 people in the house. And so, all the things from a life safety perspective, we’re always concerned about access, egress, people getting out of the building. And we have no enforcement mechanism over that as it currently sits because it’s considered a residential property. Sheriff: And I would like to make a point about that as a follow-up. We’re getting a lot of comments about what people like or dislike, you know, I don’t want you to do this. I like you to do this. But I want to remind people, we’re still bound the Sheriff’s office and Chief Crawford as well, we’re bound by the Constitution. There are things that we are simply not going to violate. And at the end of the day, whether I like it or dislike it as I said before, is not a relevant consideration in this regard. We are going to follow the law. We are going to follow our Constitutional duties, and we’re not going to violate that. Now, and I say that because there have been people that ask why aren’t we doing certain things. And just the real simple answer is because it’s not in our legal authority to do it. Any other questions? Audience: Yes, just one right quick. Obviously, this is a misdemeanor charge. So, the question is how much are you willing to accept in terms of the number of folks that you’ll actually take through that process in the court system? Sheriff: So, you know the question was how much of this are we willing to endure or how many folks are we willing to arrest I guess is the best way of putting it if they’re non-compliant. And you know, again, we’re shooting for compliance. We’re shooting for people to work together. But let’s be clear about this, if it’s a question of wills, I’m gonna win that. I promise you. Because I’m not going to not do my job. Just not gonna happen. Audience: Say that you have some arrests, I know it’s a misdemeanor but if they get plugged into the county jail, are they gonna be screened for #Coronavirus? Sheriff: Well, so first of all, that’s actually a good question. So, the question was if they were arrested and booked in the county jail, we’re doing everything we can to limit exposure to both the jail and to the virus itself. So, no, we would not typically speaking take those folks to jail. We would issue them a notice to appear, a summons, things of that nature. That’s a great question because we’re going to use some commonsense in this. Now, listen, if you slap a deputy or you slap a lifeguard, you’re going the whole way. You get the full trip. You know, but we’re not here to make money. We’re not here to create stats. We’re here to gain compliance. And so we will be again as good as you’ll let us be to you, we will be that way. Listen, we are not running out there on the beach and gonna tackle you, here’s your summons. That’s not happening. We’ll explain to them what’s going on. Educate them what’s happening. Let people be aware of what’s going on and then give them the opportunity to comply. So, if you choose to not comply after being told, educated, and warned, then you’re a dummy. That’s a technical term. Audience: Sheriff, just to wrap up, how do you plan to educate your deputies? This is going to be a process that we need to put into place thoughtfully. This happened at 9:00 this morning. If you’re not seeing deputies on the beach right now, there’s a reason behind that. Sheriff: This is a process. The implementation of this is a process. It’s a lot of coordination. We have about 24 hours lead time on this. So, we’re trying to both get the protocols of how we do it to make sure that we’re complying with the law. To make sure that we do it in a thoughtful manner. And we’re gearing everybody up. It is a joint operation. This is not a Sheriff’s office only operation. We appreciate our partners at South Walton Fire District, The Board of County Commissioners, the TDC, but we also again appreciate the business owners and the residents who are, even if they don’t like it, who are complying and who understand. So, we’re going to take a little time. It’s going to gear up. We couldn’t clear all 26 miles of beach by 12 noon. That just was not going to happen, right? It is going to be a process. But we are going to be fair, and we’re going to be professional, and we’re going to use commonsense in the execution of our duties. We’re starting now to the best of our abilities. But it will continue to gear up by I think by 8:00 tomorrow morning we’ll have all hands. For sure. You know, amazingly there are other things going on in Walton County too. I know sometimes we don’t see that in the news, but we’re actually engaged in quite a few other things at the same time too. And I’m glad that people don’t think anything else is going on quite honestly. I think that’s the sign of a great community that we live in. But we are in fact got quite a bit going on as well. But this is important, and we will deal with it as the priority issue to date. Thank you for your time and thank you again to our partners. And thank you to the citizens of Walton County who again regardless of how you feel about this whether they should or should not have made this decision, respect the fact that they did not make it in a vacuum. And they did not make it without a lot of deep thought. And that your Sheriff’s office and your fire district and your Board of County Commissioners tediously employs everybody involved are gonna do what they can to help us all get through this in a thoughtful and professional manner. Thank you.

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