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WASHINGTON — A federal judge in Florida on Monday denied an emergency motion that would have allowed former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and other beach-front owners near Pensacola to be exempted from an order that closed all public and private beaches in their county amid the coronavirus outbreak.
U.S. District Court Judge Roger Vinson of the Northern District of Florida heard arguments from both attorneys representing the plaintiffs and attorneys representing Walton County by phone on Monday, court documents show.
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Huckabee, a Republican, and more than a dozen other owners of beachfront property along the Gulf of Mexico in Walton County sued last week after the county closed the beaches in an effort to stop the spread of coronavirus.
The plaintiffs said in their complaint that county officials and officials from the local sheriff’s office had been patrolling and occupying their private properties and that “through threats of prosecution including fines of up to $500 and jail (up to 60 days), have physically prevented Plaintiffs from being able to use or even set foot in their own backyards.”
The plaintiffs then asked that the court declare the county's decision to close private beaches unconstitutional and to award them “just compensation” for the temporary use of their properties by the county.
The complaint said that the plaintiffs have been following the federal government’s social distancing guidelines and have never had more than 10 people together at a time. The decision by the county, they said, “would force family members into a confined space within a house rather than allow them to social distance and recreate in their sandy backyard. Or it forces them to public locations to recreate potentially closer to many other persons that may have COVID-19.”
According to local newspaper The Walton Sun, Vinson said Monday that, “Public beach on the Gulf of Mexico is not defined by legal ownership, but by what is the beach.”
“To anyone looking at the beach, sometimes you can’t tell where the beach really ends. Where does the beach end? That is the gray area I think we are really concerned with,” he said.
According to Florida’s state department of health, Walton County has at least 29 positive COVID-19 cases and no deaths.