JACKSONVILLE BEACH, Fla. – Jacksonville Beach residents are bracing for crowds this weekend even with a spike in new coronavirus cases.
Over the past week, dozens of customers and staff at beach bars and restaurants reported being positive for COVID-19. That prompted about a dozen businesses to close voluntarily and temporarily for deep cleaning and employee testing.
Now, after shutting down for a few days, many are opening up as crowds flock to the beach for Father’s Day weekend.
“As long as you practice social distancing, keep your hands clean, hygiene I think you’ll be OK,” said Johnny Sewell, a beachgoer from Jacksonville.
He and his friends aren’t worried about visiting Jacksonville Beach because they said trying to be responsible about it.
Others aren’t as comfortable.
“Me and my friends like to go to the beach bars, but we won’t be going anymore,” said Jessica Hernandez. “It’s a scary thing. It’s really scary. I like the idea of coming back, but I don’t think it’s safe.”
“People still need to be careful,” said James Mistry. “I think they’re taking it for disregard.”
Mistry said people were keeping distance in public areas but he worried about indoor activities.
It’s been a rough week for the area as a whole. A number of businesses temporarily closed for deep cleaning as dozens of customers and staff at restaurants and bars tested positive for COVID-19. Two Neptune Beach police officers and two Jacksonville Beach lifeguards also have the virus, News4Jax has confirmed. Supervisors at both agencies said they were still able to serve the public despite losing first responders.
COVID-19 testing centers were once again packed with many coming from the beach waiting for hours to see whether they, too, have the virus.
Those concerns are why Blue Jay Listening Room’s owner didn’t open her wine bar for phase two.
“I didn’t want to rush into anything,” said Cara Burkey. “Make sure we were doing everything correctly, and thank goodness I didn’t reopen because with all the new cases in our beaches area, I would have had to close again. In hindsight, I’m glad I didn’t reopen. It’s a real bummer, but it’s not worth the risk.”
“We’re looking as a city to see what we can do to help businesses as much as we can and keep the public safe at the same time,” Jacksonville Beach Mayor Charlie Latham commented.
The second-term mayor said he’s talking to experts and the other beaches mayors about how to keep everyone safe, noting there could be changes as early as next week. He said he did not want to go into details until they were finalized.
Latham said the city could enforce occupancy, 50% at bars, but the rest would be the state’s jurisdiction.
In the meantime, he’s asking everyone to use common sense.
“If you walk into a bar or tavern and it’s packed and there’s a bunch of people in there, you’re not free from the virus,” Latham said. “You can pick it up in there so you should probably think twice about going in there.”
Councilman Phil Vogelsang, who is also an attorney, said business owners have an obligation to protect their staff and customers. However, he noted there’s also implied risk for people going out in public.
“You have a duty for a safe work environment as an employer or somebody that owns a business, so you have a duty to provide a safe working environment for your employees and you also have a duty to your patrons to come to your business,” Vogelsang said.
He said the courts could potentially be left to decide if anyone is liable for possible outbreaks of the virus.
“Have you fulfilled your duty to your patrons or workers? Because obviously there’s something called assumption of risk. We all assume the risk of places that we go,” he said.
“People who visit these types of businesses are typically not wearing a mask which I think has contributed to multiple people becoming infected,” Vogelsang added. “So, hopefully, take more precautions as citizens when we go to these businesses because you’re not really wearing a mask for yourself, you’re wearing it for others.”
Many businesses that did close are back open again with signs certifying they’ve been deep cleaned and encouraging distancing between others.
Managers and owners are asking people to keep their distance and if they feel sick or were exposed to stay home.