DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Hundreds of people gathered at a popular Florida beach boardwalk and were seen partying and dancing despite social distancing restrictions imposed by the state to combat the coronavirus pandemic, authorities said Sunday.
Police responded, attempting to disperse the crowds along a beachside road in Daytona Beach that were there for an annual gathering that was not authorized by the local government this year.
Some fights broke out during the afternoon and police said a shooting also was reported outside a nearby convenience store, with two people taken to the hospital with gunshot wounds and four injured by shrapnel. Officers were not involved in the shooting.
“We got slammed. Disney is closed, Universal is closed. Everything is closed so where did everybody come with the first warm day with 50% opening? Everybody came to the beach,” Volusia County Sheriff Mike Chitwood said at a Sunday news conference.
The Volusia County Sheriff’s Office released helicopter images showing the large Memorial Day weekend crowds surrounding a car outside a beachfront mall as a man stood on the sunroof and other men hung out the windows throwing money around and blocking traffic.
Chitwood and Daytona Beach Police Chief Craig Capri defended the work of officers in dispersing the crowds, saying people complied with the orders to leave and that no businesses received damage.
Officials said they have been criticized for not making use of force against the crowds and declining to make arrests for social distancing violations.
“I know people were upset with the numbers of crowds there. I am a little pissed off, too, about a lot of this. We don’t take this lightly," Chief Capri said. “We got the coronavirus still going around and people not practicing social distancing. But I am not the social distancing police. It’s not my job.”
Sheriff Chitwood told reporters he did not think breaking those rules could be realistically enforced with arrests.
“If someone out there wants to ask a stupid social distancing question, social distancing is not a crime. It’s an executive order issued by the governor that no prosecutor in the state of Florida has prosecuted anybody for that, and no judge is going to convict them," he said.
Last weekend, sheriff's deputies in the same county were hit with cups of alcohol, bottles and bar stools after they made arrests at a weekend block party in Deland, Florida, involving thousands of party-goers.
Officials said the gathering on Saturday was part of an annual event called “Orlando invades Daytona,” which did not receive permits this year. The man who stood on the sunroof of the car is wanted by authorities, but no arrests have been made.
“We are going to identify him and we are going to charge him. He was the linchpin of all this that happened,” Sheriff Chitwood said, adding that they believe the group was filming a rap video.
The helicopter images of the crowds in Daytona Beach showed groups scattering when officers arrived, but another large group then gathered around a different vehicle. Police said they were breaking up parties along the beach and more inland for hours and into the night.
Florida has reported more than 50,800 cases of COVID-19, and more than 2,230 deaths.
Coronavirus social distancing rules in the state and Volusia County state that people must be in groups of 10 or fewer. Beaches elsewhere also saw major Memorial Day weekend crowds that prompted law enforcement to turn away beachgoers.
Sheriff deputies also shut down access to most beaches in St. Petersburg and Clearwater by mid-day on Saturday saying they reached an “unprecedented level of closures," and many were closing down on Sunday because they had reached capacity.
For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and those with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia and death
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