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Walton County Sheriff, Mike Atkinson on Beach Closing Enforcement Policy
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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
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.
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
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
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
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.
How does this impact the privately owned beaches?
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.
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.
Can you explain what you mean by people being under investigation?
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.
Do you know what that number is?
It’s about 26 as of right about now. Now that’s subject to change. It could have
changed an hour ago.
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?
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
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
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
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
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
Audience: Sheriff, is there any action being taken to monitor restaurants and
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
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.
Walton County Sheriff, Mike Atkinson on Beach Closing Enforcement Policy