Emails reveal medical examiner urged St. Johns County to close beaches

St. Johns County's beaches are open, and people are being allowed to sunbathe for the first time since March. Emails reveal that early in the coronavirus pandemic, the county's assistant medical examiner pleaded with county leaders to close their beaches.

Beaches in St. Johns County remained open to large crowds for most of March, despite concerns raised by its associate medical examiner, according to internal emails newly obtained by the News4Jax I-TEAM.

On March 20, Florida Gov. Ron Desantis announced orders to close beaches, movie theaters, concert halls, gymnasiums and similar businesses in Broward and Palm Beach counties to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus. The same day, Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry announced beaches in Duval County, including popular Jacksonville Beach, were closing until further notice.

St. Johns County beaches remained open.

On March 23, Dr. Deanna Oleske, the associate medical examiner for St. Johns, Flagler and Putnam counties, sent an email to St. Johns County Administrator Hunter Conrad, urging him to close the beaches.

“Please close the beaches. SJC has a higher rate per 100k than any of the immediate surrounding more populous counties,” wrote Oleske.

In response, the county administrator told Oleske there was “no medical evidence that beaches have anything to do with COVID-19” and that he specifically consulted with Dr. Dawn Alicock, director of the Florida Department of Health in St. Johns County, who supported the decision to keep the beaches open.

“It’s the [associate] medical examiner. She is a doctor, so we value their opinion and advice they give us. I reviewed it along with my assistant county administrator. I also took it to my county health director, as well as our Emergency Management and law enforcement and we began discussing hey we have a little bit of a bigger rate is this something we need to adjust,” Conrad told the I-TEAM on Monday after The Washington Post first reported the internal emails. “And at that time we didn’t feel it was necessary. We were still at the very beginning.”

Just days after Oleske urged county leaders to close the beaches, a photo of the line between Jacksonville Beach in Duval County and Ponte Vedra Beach in St. Johns County went viral on Twitter. The photo, taken by Clay Archer and posted by Travis Akers on March 28, showed a clear divide between an empty Jacksonville Beach and a crowded Ponte Vedra Beach.

The next day, St. Johns County officials announced on March 29 they were closing the beaches. They reopened two weeks later for exercise and reopened Monday for sunbathers. The decision to close the beaches was the county administrator’s to make.

“Our goal from day one was to keep the beaches open. Obviously, we saw the photo that came out nationally, the comparison that you saw, so we had to reevaluate,” Conrad said. “That final decision point was people were beginning to not follow those guidelines. There were those who were abusing it and there were large crowds gathering. It was beginning to be more difficult for law enforcement to enforce.”

The county administrator said there’s a lot that could have been done better, but it’s unclear if in hindsight he would have closed the beaches sooner.

“Could it have been done better? Could we have done things differently? Sure. There is always room for improvement. If I sat here before you and said we couldn’t have done anything better, I would be lying to you," he said.

As of Monday, according to the state Department of Health, St. Johns County had 211 confirmed cases of COVID-19, 39 hospitalizations and four deaths, with the cases recorded in St. Johns County making up only 0.6% of the 36,897 cases reported statewide.

With the beaches back open with few limitations as of Monday, the I-TEAM asked Conrad what his threshold was for closing the beaches again.

“My expectation is that people are going to rise to the occasion because they want to be able to access their beach,” Conrad said.

So far, Conrad said, law enforcement is patrolling the beaches, but they have not issued citations for people failing to practice social distancing. Conrad said, to this point, they have been able to handle issues with education and warnings.

The I-TEAM reached out to Oleske, but had not heard back as of Monday evening.

About the Author:

Kelly Wiley, an award-winning investigative reporter, joined the News4Jax I-Team in June 2019.