FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Florida’s state parks will begin reopening Monday as part of the state’s recovery from the new coronavirus outbreak, Gov. Ron DeSantis said Friday. But South Florida, with the majority of the state’s infections, was excluded from the initiative.
Only 80 of the state’s 177 parks, trails and historic sites are included in the first reboot, which the governor said is timely because of limited chances of spreading COVID-19 in nature.
The state parks won’t reopen in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties. One exception is the Florida Keys Overseas Heritage Trail, which will reopen in Monroe County, according to the state Department of Environmental Protection.
The state hasn’t elaborated about its reason to keep state parks closed in South Florida while many of the county and cities across the region already opened their parks days ago. To explain its phased-in approach, the state said the parks chosen to reopen were ready “for day use with limited risk to visitors and staff.”
“Visitors will be asked to practice proper social distancing and to limit group size to 10 or less and to stay six feet apart,” an announcement reads. “No sunbathing, chairs, canopies or coolers are allowed in beach areas at this time.”
Parks officials are “actively working to develop the next phase of additional openings that can be expected over the coming days,” press secretary Weesam Khoury wrote in an email to the South Florida Sun Sentinel.
DeSantis said the latest scientific data proves that it’s safe for residents to experience the state parks for the first time since they were closed March 23. “Outdoor transmission is less likely than transmission in enclosed environments,” he said. “If it’s not risky to go to a park, you should go to a park.”
Still, visitors must know “it’s not going to be like it was in February,” DeSantis told reporters at a news conference at Little Talbot Island State Park in Jacksonville.
In addition to reopening parks in South Florida, many cities and towns also opened their golf courses and marinas in recent days. Officials have said there will be zero-tolerance for people who violate rules, which may include wearing a mask and practicing social distancing.
“There will be stiff penalties if people don’t abide by rules,” Palm Beach County Mayor Dave Kerner has said, noting that scofflaws can be arrested and charged with a second-degree misdemeanor.
Pembroke Pines is keeping its parks closed, for now, as Mayor Frank Ortis said there’s a risk of getting overwhelmed: “I can’t control it. People will slam into the parks and I can’t have that.”
Also on Monday, Everglades National Park will start to increase its recreational offerings. The National Park Service on Friday announced a phased approach, which will include reopening access to Main Park Road from the Homestead entrance to Flamingo Marina.
The marina’s boat launch ramps, store, restrooms and gas pumps will be open. Also, the park’s entry fees will be waived, and marina waters and beach campsites in the wilderness are continuing to be available to the public.
“I am pleased that we can be part of our community’s efforts to take incremental steps toward reopening,” park Superintendent Pedro Ramos said in a news release. “Our action to restore access to the park’s main road and Flamingo provides additional opportunities for people to spread out a little more while practicing social distancing.”
Still, plenty of areas in Everglades National will remain closed: All visitor centers and public buildings; concession tours and boat rentals; and locations such as Shark Valley and Gulf Coast.
The latest data from the Florida Department of Health shows an increase in pandemic infections and fatalities.
At least 1,314 people in the state have died from COVID-19 as of Friday. Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties account for 748 of the deaths.
Overall, it’s a rise of 46 reported deaths over the previous day across the state.
The statistics show 358 people have died in Miami-Dade County, which has a population of 2.7 million people. That leads all 67 counties in the state, according to the most recent census data.
There have been 191 deaths in Palm Beach County and 199 in Broward, the Department of Health said. Broward had a one-day increase of 14 deaths.
The state also says 404,467 people have been swabbed for COVID-19, and 34,728 have tested positive. That’s about 8.67%.
On Friday, Gov. DeSantis said that the state will expand screening by rolling out a mobile testing lab next week.
It will visit places such as nursing homes and assisted-living facilities, where elderly residents are at high-risk for the virus. At least 444 of the state’s COVID-19 deaths have been at long-term care facilities.
“That mobile lab really allows you to go and try to identify any clusters before they spread and ultimately be able to save a lot of people,” DeSantis said, during a news conference at a new drive-thru testing site at the University of West Florida in Pensacola.
The mobile lab offers rapid test results, which come back in less than one hour.
The U.S. has almost 1.1 million coronavirus cases with 64,324 deaths as of Friday evening. The Johns Hopkins University & Medicine Coronavirus Resource Center reported there have been 3.3 million cases worldwide and 237,647 people have died.
(Sun Sentinel staff writer Lisa J. Huriash contributed to this report.)
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