Wednesday morning marked the first day Duval County beaches would be open all day without limits on the kind of activities visitors could take part in. The rule change was done in tandem between Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry and the beaches’ three mayors.
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It was 6 a.m. and a groggy Mylan Powers was already at the beach with his friends. Standup paddleboard and cellphone in tow, he was one of many throughout the day who would celebrate Jacksonville Beach — unrestricted.
Wednesday morning marked the first day Duval County beaches would be open all day without limits on the kind of activities visitors could take part in. The rule change was done in tandem between Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry and the Beaches’ three mayors.
In an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus and encourage social distancing, Curry ordered the beaches closed back in March. A month later, the beaches reopened, but with limits on hours and what "essential activites" beachgoers could participate in while they were there, including "walking, biking, hiking, fishing, running, swimming, taking care of pets and surfing."
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In its first day without restrictions, the beaches were largely calm. It was a partly cloudy day that originally threatened rain, but proved to stay sunny throughout. Powers and his friends visited early to catch the sunrise and get out of the house a little.
"I wasn’t sure if we’d get a good view of the sunrise because the weather app showed that it’d be cloudy," Powers said. "But there were hardly any clouds. The sunrise was beautiful and it was a great escape from being stuck inside."
Crowds throughout the day were sparse with people scattered for miles.
"We weren’t too nervous, but it was definitely a relief when we saw that it was empty," Powers said. "There weren’t many others around."
Come noon, about five men stood in a row beneath the Jacksonville Beach Fishing Pier — which is closed for repairs — waist deep into the calm waters to cast their lines. Each had about four or five feet’s worth between them.
Those who were on the beach seemed to be doing their best to keep socially distanced from each other, per the mayors’ warnings.
"The three Beaches mayors and I are grateful with how the public has responded to the restrictions in the past and asked them to continue to do so and not ruin this for everyone," Curry said at a press conference last week.
Even the familiar Atlantic Beach dive bar Harbor Tavern on Mayport Road was encouraging people to keep their distance and not storm the beaches.
"DON’T ROAM, GO HOME," the bar’s marquee over its entrance said. "DEFEAT CORONAVIRUS."
Still, one welcome change among beachgoers from the lifting of restrictions: the return of the beach towel.
Previously, sunbathing, beach chairs and blankets or large beach towels being used to lay out on were restricted to discourage people staying in one area too long. On Wednesday, visitors could be seen strewn out on blankets with books and phones throughout the area.
Seven-year-old Bryce Noblit smirked as he covered his four-year-old brother, Braxton’s, body in sand and dug holes until they struck the first bit of water.
Ponte Vedra resident Beth Adair’s been looking forward to the beaches reopening.
"I’ve noticed everyone is complying with distancing," she said after one of her near daily bike rides to Atlantic Beach and back. "[I’m] so glad to see the beach reopened."
Zoe Parland visited the beach with a group of kids she was babysitting.
"It was nice," she said. "There weren’t too many people when we went and everyone was pretty spread out. Plus the water felt amazing."
Curry attributed the beaches reopening to Jacksonville’s declining rate of positive test results. On Tuesday, Curry said 28,000 tests had been given to Duval County residents and the positive rate was less than 4 percent. Curry did not host a news conference on Wednesday, but one is scheduled to take place Thursday.
According to the Florida Department of Health, Northeast Florida has 1,783 reported cases of the virus, including 1,077 in Duval County.
The death toll in Northeast Florida rose by one, with 26 deaths in Duval, 19 in Clay, four each in Putnam and St. Johns, three in Baker and one in Nassau.
A new death reported in Clay County was an 80-year-old woman who was reported by the department as a verified COVID-19 case on April 7 and had recently traveled to New York.
Statewide, there are 38,002 cases as of publication time, 6,557 hospitalizations and 1,539 deaths according to the department.
By the day’s end, the sands of Jacksonville Beach continued to be dotted with dozens of umbrellas in all colors, chairs and small groups. Some went on runs, some walked their dogs. With lunchboxes and coolers back in action, the seagulls returned as well. And, for the most part, everyone kept their distance.
Emily Bloch: (904) 359-4083