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,
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
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 fromWe’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
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
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
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
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.