May 6, 2020


PERF’s COVID-19 coronavirus resources, including past editions of the Daily COVID-19 Report, are available at


Police Chiefs and Sheriffs in CA, FL, and TX Detail Issues for Beaches

Beaches present a unique set of issues for police and sheriffs’ departments’ response to the COVID-19 pandemic.  Community members may feel less vulnerable to infection on a beach than they would feel in a grocery store or even in a park, but that confidence may be misplaced. So police are tasked with enforcing public health orders governing beaches. Local officials report intense pressure from the public to reopen beaches, and many have already been reopened. PERF recently spoke with a group of officials about these issues.

Key Takeaways

  • Community views are polarized:  Many police chiefs and sheriffs report that roughly half of their community members want a quick reopening of beaches and other facilities, while the other half feel just as strongly about reducing the spread of the COVID-19 virus and want police to enforce public health orders. Police are caught in the middle, trying to find a balance.
  • Conflicting orders put police in an untenable spot:  In some places, police receive conflicting direction from multiple levels of government.  In these cases, police rely more than ever on trying to obtain voluntary compliance.
  • Beaches tend to be “porous” areas, with hundreds of access points, so it can be difficult or impossible to limit the number of people coming onto a beach.
  • Beaches are among the first recreational spots being reopened, before other facilities such as restaurants, bars, movie theaters, and health clubs.
  • Boats anchoring near shore:  In some beach areas, people are using boats to congregate offshore on sandbars.
  • Educational role:  Many police agencies are patrolling beaches and encouraging beach-goers to practice social distancing. Citations and other enforcement actions are sometimes available, but are generally avoided in order to prevent a community backlash. Officers are having to rely on their communications and de-escalation skills.
  • Communicating the rules:  To ensure that community members know about the changing rules, many agencies are posting hundreds of signs and using social media.



Huntington Beach, CA Chief Robert Handy:

Every Level of Government Says Something Different, and Police Are in the Middle

From my perspective, it’s unrealistic for police to enforce social distancing, especially in a protest environment.  Orange County is a very conservative county, and the sheriff and my county attorney have both said that the governor’s orders are unconstitutional, which puts us in a really bad spot for enforcing anything. The cops are stuck right in the middle of these conflicting orders and conflicting direction.

The federal government says one thing, the state of California says another, our county health department says another, our city attorney says another, the district attorney’s office says another. There are a lot of conflicts when interpreting what we should and shouldn’t be doing, and the cops are stuck in an untenable spot.

The governor ordered our beaches closed, and our city filed a lawsuit to block that. Our city attorney has publicly said that those orders are unconstitutional. But the city decided to close the beach through the municipal code, because we didn’t want to be the only beach open. When we tried to enforce the closing, people told us that they weren’t leaving, because our city attorney said the governor’s orders are unconstitutional.

We are just reopening our beaches to be “active use” beaches. They’re asking us to enforce that as well. It’s a little easier, because we can go around and tell people they can’t have chairs or an ice chest or sit on their blankets.

Wexler: Which rules are you enforcing?

Chief Handy: It literally changes every day, when there’s new guidance from the county, the state, or the city council.

Our cops are just being flexible. They’re really doing an outstanding job of trying to educate everybody first, and trying to gain voluntary compliance. They’re really relying on their ability to communicate and their de-escalation skills. We’ve had just a couple arrests and a few citations in the weeks that this thing has gone on.

For the most part, we’ve been able to talk our way out of difficult spots.


San Diego Chief Dave Nisleit:

We Have More Problems at Night

We opened our beaches last Tuesday for limited use, meaning you can access the beach to jog or walk and enter the water to surf. We don’t allow people to sit on the beach, and people are told to keep moving unless they’re in the water. We have a mask mandate now, but it’s nearly unenforceable as written.

We have a beach team detailed out there, and we’re augmenting them with overtime officers.

We’ve put out an enormous amount of signage. Our boardwalks are closed, our parking lots are closed, and our piers are closed. You can’t go more than 20 yards without running into a sign saying the area is closed. On the sand, there are signs everywhere saying you can’t stop, you can’t sit, and you can’t have chairs or beach towels.

We’ve used social media and the news media to talk about the rules.

We actually have more problems at night, when people come down to the beach to look at the sunset and the luminescence in the water. People are coming down around 9 or 10 o’clock at night, and that’s when we’re having more problems with social distancing on the beach.



Clearwater, FL Chief Dan Slaughter:

It’s Difficult to Control the Number of People at a Beach

Note: Clearwater’s beaches reopened Monday morning.

Our beach is a little over four miles, and it’s really three different beach areas that we’re trying to manage. Our city has a very robust parks and recreation department, and they are a critical partner in helping us manage the reopening.

The strategy for reopening begins with communication through news outlets, message boards, and signage. From there we have soft engagements with the public.

With our recreation centers closed, a lot of our parks and recreation staff are not currently working. We brought them into an ambassador program that lines all the public access points along the beach. They’re engaging the public, reminding them to follow social distancing guidelines, encouraging them to use safe practices, and directing them to sanitation equipment. 


The beach itself has a greater saturation of regular patrol officers than we have ever had in Pinellas County. Including my officers and Pinellas County sheriff’s deputies, there were probably 300 officers working on this today.

On the beach, people social distance by staying six feet apart and in groups no larger than 10. Our ambassadors were provided homemade PVC pipes that people can use to create a six-foot circle.

The goal is for the civilian staff to have the first contact with public, educate them, and ask for compliance. If they aren’t getting compliance, officers are expected to come in and make another attempt at education, to hopefully avoid enforcement. And, on the first day today, we’ve made it through without any type of enforcement.

With our current level of resources, we couldn’t do this under normal operating protocols. With the “safer at home” restrictions, we have some capacity that is unused, like school resource officers. But we can’t maintain this level of staffing forever.

It’s pretty complicated to manage the density on the beach and not let it get to the point where social distancing isn’t possible. The beaches have multiple entry points and parking in different places, so you really can’t control every border of the beach.


Miami Beach Chief Rick Clements:

We’re Under Pressure to Reopen

We are under a lot of pressure right now to open up our beaches and to open up Ocean Drive, and the hotel bookings will go in lockstep with the beaches being open.

We recently opened up our parks, based on a directive from the Dade County mayor. The problem we saw was that not every jurisdiction was on the same page as they opened up their own parks. Some municipalities chose to not open up their parks last week, while we were in lockstep with the county. We were one of the few cities in Miami-Dade to open up our parks, many of which are on our waterfront. Over the weekend we had a difficult time dealing with social distancing and people not wearing masks.

We are formulating a plan to deal with the eventual reopening of the beaches, but we’re being very careful with this and planning to do it sometime in June, as long as we can withstand the pressure to open up earlier.



Volusia County, FL Sheriff Mike Chitwood provided PERF with short video clips of the St. Johns River and Daytona Beach on the weekend of May 2-3. “In the Intercoastal Waterway and the rivers, we have these sandbars where we get a large buildup of boats and people partying,” Sheriff Chitwood said.


Deputy Chief Andy Ethridge, Volusia County Beach Safety:

Last Saturday, We Did 60 Water Rescues – And a Thousand Contacts with the Public About Social Distancing

We have 47 miles of beach jurisdiction that we handle, and it’s a very porous atmosphere. We’ve got hundreds, if not a thousand, entry points to a beach that has more than 10 million visitors a year.

So we’re dealing with large crowds, and when we’re trying to restrict the movement of those crowds, we’re doing it with anywhere from 20 to 25 officers a day.

We’re cross-trained for ocean rescue, law enforcement, and EMS. So we have triple certification. Because we’re certified EMTs, we handle all the medical calls as first responders on the beach. We’re the front line of any rescues and water-related injuries.

So we’re in charge of pretty much everything that happens on the beach, and COVID is just something else that’s been put on top of it. We’re following the governor’s regulations and we’re trying to keep people spaced out as best we can.

Like most places, we attempted to shut it down completely, and we got severe backlash from that. We were lucky that we didn’t have too many people trying to protest those moves or anything like that. But once we started trying to reopen a little bit at a time, it started creating some problems for our officers.

What we’re seeing for the most part is the general human nature of the people coming to our beaches, they don’t necessarily set up right next to people they don’t know anyway. So the social distancing is kind of a natural occurrence for our visitors.

If we see people congregating too much, we’re out there in our vehicles and we do a lot of contacts and public address announcements. I think on Saturday we had over 1,000 contacts with the public, just reminding them to spread out and keep that social distancing, and we also had about 60 water rescues that day too. It can become quite burdensome.

About half of our population wants the beaches to open, and the other half don’t. So we’re running  right in the middle of that, trying to dance on that fine line where we can kind of keep everybody happy while keeping everybody safe.

All of the other entertainment venues are not open yet, so this is pretty much the Wild West out here. It’s the last stand where people can go and get some entertainment.

Wexler: Is this work being done on regular time or on overtime?

Deputy Chief Ethridge:  Both, so it will have some major budget impacts if this goes on for a long time.


Captain Mike Berard, Volusia County Beach Safety:

The Workload Is Not Sustainable Over a Long Period of Time

Of the 47 miles of our beach, almost 18 miles are drivable beach. That was closed pretty early, and we have yet to reopen that, but we’ve had some complaints under the Americans with Disabilities Act about not allowing handicapped persons to come down and access the beach for exercise activities.

As of right now we’re slowly kind of trying to open incrementally some of the parking areas. Parks are at half capacity, I believe, right now. We do have some levels of enforcement. We have county ordinances that are sitting in our pocket for enforcement action. We do have some people who are trying our authority a little bit, but we have the ability to issue warnings and notices to appear, fines of $50 going up to $500, and we have the authority to arrest and bring persons to jail if they’re violating the governor’s order. Obviously we’re starting with the warnings and trying to educate the public.

So we’re working on opening things incrementally and seeing how it works out. So far so good. But some of the things that we’re doing are not sustainable for a long period of time. All the contacts about social distancing, in addition to all the other things we always do, it’s just mentally taxing for our people.

As each restriction gets loosened, it’s like we’re giving people an inch and some of them want to take a mile. Some of our restrictions were relaxed, and all of a sudden the hotel reservations spiked, so the population on the beach doubled, if not more.


Volusia County Sheriff Mike Chitwood:

This Will Become More Difficult as Bars and Restaurants Reopen 

These guys do a great job out there.  Within 24 hours of the restrictions being lifted, the hotel occupancy rate went up 80%. And no bars or restaurants were open last weekend, whereas restaurants open today for 25% occupancy inside, and if you have outdoor seating, as long as you practice social distancing, there’s no cap.

So if you have a deck that seats 1,000 people and you could arrange it where there are six feet in between parties, you can see what we’re in for.

Wexler:  Do your deputies have any trepidation about working so closely with all these people?

Sheriff Chitwood:   Well, we don’t deal with the situations that the beach guys do, but I haven’t seen it in dealing in the street. We had to do a narcotics initiative where we rounded up 35 people, so our people had all the Personal Protective Equipment for that.  I haven’t seen a drop-off in law enforcement in Volusia County. Whether it’s police, fire, or EMS, those folks are doing their job just like there is no coronavirus.



Galveston, TX Chief Vernon Hale:

I’m Concerned About Losing a Shift of Officers to Quarantine

Note: Galveston reopened beaches on May 1.

Galveston is an island that’s popular with tourists, especially during the summer. We have about 32 miles of beach. The beaches are under the jurisdiction of the park board, which has a beach patrol. The vast majority of the patrol are just lifeguards, but a few have limited law enforcement powers. We typically support them with resources and people, especially during this COVID-19 event.

Our agency, the beach patrol, and the city marshal have been working hand-in-hand to try to clear beaches when we had time limitations in place. Since May 1, when we opened up fully, I’ve been putting a couple of my officers on the beach and letting the beach patrol focus on engagement and rescues.

There has been a lack social distancing, especially among family groups. We get citizens who call in and want us to enforce social distancing with every individual, but household family units can be together. So I have my officers focus on groups of 10 or more. We try to start with a warning over the PA system. If you encounter the same groups multiple times, then you go to the next level and cite them.

I don’t know how realistic it would be to try to ask people to wear masks on the beach or try to enforce that, because people are swimming or surfing or fishing. So we try to focus on social distancing. We try to use a common-sense approach. Are people at least trying to social-distance or limit group sizes?

People have been cooped up, so they’re coming to Galveston island in droves to enjoy the good weather. We understand that, but they have to follow regulations and try to socially distance. Our only goal is to ensure the safety of our first responders and our citizens, and every time we have to be in close contact with someone, that’s a point of exposure. And you could take out a whole shift of officers if you have one or two positive cases spread.


The PERF Daily COVID-19 Report is part of the Critical Issues in Policing project, supported by the Motorola Solutions Foundation.


PERF also is grateful to the Howard G. Buffett Foundation for supporting PERF’s COVID-19 work.

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