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Trust Index: Are Jacksonville area beaches crowded or empty?

JACKSONVILLE BEACH, FL - APRIL 17: People crowded the beaches in its first open hour on April 17, 2020 in Jacksonville Beach, Fl. Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry opened the beaches to residents for limited activities for the first time in weeks since closing them to the public due to the Coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak. Jacksonville Beach became the first beach in the country to reopen. (Photo by David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
JACKSONVILLE BEACH, FL - APRIL 17: People crowded the beaches in its first open hour on April 17, 2020 in Jacksonville Beach, Fl. Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry opened the beaches to residents for limited activities for the first time in weeks since closing them to the public due to the Coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak. Jacksonville Beach became the first beach in the country to reopen. (Photo by David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images) (©Icon Sportswire (A Division of XML Team Solutions) All Rights Reserved)

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – One week after people began flocking to the beach when Mayor Lenny Curry reopened Jacksonville’s beaches, there are still questions about whether or not there are too many people in one place while the rest of the city and state remain under stay-at-home orders.

Some of what drives that conversation is different perceptions of photos of beachgoers on the sand.

Curry opened the beaches with Florida Gov. Ron Desantis’ blessing as well as nods from the three mayors of Jacksonville area beaches. St. Johns County followed suit the next day.

Northeast Florida leaders were among the first to open the shorelines, citing positive signs in the fight against COVID-19. But those lawmakers, local residents and journalists drew ire from people across the globe saying it was too soon, the move was irresponsible and the photos from the openings were misleading, even fake.

People critical of the reopening even labeled beachgoers as #FloridaMorons.

A week later, the criticisms continue online and News4Jax continues to get questions about the number of visitors and their behaviors.

The photo that generated a thousand tweets

After one particular image from a Getty photographer David Rosenblum (shown at the top of this story and in the tweets below) showing lots of people on Jacksonville Beach was widely displayed on media sites, the world went wild.

Rosenblum’s photo shows a lot of people on the sand just after Duval County’s were reopened. The compressed look of the lens made people look close together and made the crowds look huge. Not to mention, the angle showed the Jacksonville Beach pier with land in the background.

The allegations ran rampant, accusing the photographer and publisher of photoshopping the image or using an archive photo to mislead the public.

Rosenblum stands behind his work.

“I grew up on 29th (Avenue South), so that’s part of the reason I went there,” he told News4Jax. “Still live at the beaches. Just blows me away how out of control this got. I’ve offered to meet people at the spot with the camera setup I used to show them the view.”

I went to the spot where the photo was taken and showed the angles do indeed show the pier, the same fence, trash cans and a lot of people with a telephoto lens. From this perspective, you can also see Atlantic Beach and Mayport behind the pier.

I verified the photo appeared to be accurate and true. However, this picture and others were taken out of context on social media.

A website called NewsBreak.com used the picture as the main image on a story about a rise in COVID-19 cases in Los Angeles County. As in Los Angeles, California. Editors later said it was a mishap with the site’s auto-posting feature.

WJXT received numerous emails and messages about the post. Our journalists were criticized for misleading the public. That prompted me to post this:

PERSPECTIVE: Jacksonville area journalists are being accused of lying to the public about the images shown of the...

Posted by WJXT4 Vic Micolucci on Sunday, April 19, 2020

Verifying site Snopes.com picked up the debate, citing WJXT.

“Although it’s possible a photograph of Jacksonville beaches from the weekend of April 17-19, 2020, might have been inappropriately used somewhere to illustrate a story about a different part of the U.S. (such as California), the pictures seen here are correctly represented as to time and place (i.e., taken in Jacksonville in mid-April 2020).”

Critics of images showed photographs from smartphones that appear to illustrate empty beaches, claiming beaches were never crowded. Locals were worried the pictures would draw so much negative attention that local leaders would pull back and close the shorelines again.

The fact is, at times, there were thousands of people on Duval County’s beaches, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they weren’t following the guidelines set for by Mayor Curry and beaches’ leaders.

What’s the real story of crowds on the beaches?

Since the reopening, I have spent every day on the beach documenting the numbers of people. Sometimes I check in the morning, sometimes in the evening, sometimes both.

I spoke with the police about the numbers of people.

Jacksonville Beach Chief Gene Paul Smith noted there were large crowds but the vast majority followed the rules. No sunbathing, no stopping, no groups of people.

Neptune Beach Police Commander Mike Key said his agency didn’t have any major issues with beachgoers, but there were “holiday-like crowds” that required extra police and lifeguard resources.

Neptune Beach patrol Capt. Rich Banks said 99% of people were doing the right thing.

In Atlantic Beach, Police Commander Tiffany Layson said there were an estimated 1,500 people on the beach at peak times, but people mostly followed the rules, save for a jogger who ran the beach during the closed hours and disobeyed officers’ commands to leave. He ended up in jail.

The discrepancy in the perspectives has a lot to do with people looking at images of different angles from different times at different parts of the beach. Their preconceived notions also come into play.

A helicopter shot looks different from a drone shot which looks different from a telephoto shot which looks different from a smartphone shot. The optics are different. The angles are different. As your car mirrors say, objects may appear further than they are.

Here’s the truth: Not all of the beaches were crowded. Not all were empty. Most people didn’t break the rules of social distancing. Some did.

If you take the miles of beaches up and down Duval County, there were indeed thousands of people at any given time. However, most kept their distance. And there was a lot of sand left for those who did not want to be near other people.

Geography and public parking play a big role. Jacksonville Beach is the busiest. It’s located off JTB and Beach Boulevard. It has the most public parking. It has the most restaurants and shops. It also has the most dense population in the beaches communities.

Smaller cities like Neptune Beach and Atlantic Beach saw fewer people as there are not as many multi-family homes and there is considerably less public parking near beach accesses.

This story is not about whether opening the beaches is safe or not. That’s an opinion for individuals to make on their own or after consulting with health experts. Florida’s other mayors are weighing whether Jacksonville’s model should be replicated in other coastal communities.

This story is about the images coming out for the world to see. And photos taken by real journalists and legitimate news agencies can be used on social media and blogs to mislead. Captions and circumstances can be easily altered.

That’s why discerning Internet users should look at more than one image, verify posts from friends on social media before sharing or commenting and stick with trusted news sources.

It’s why major fact-checking organizations have quoted WJXT’s accounts.

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