A couple of weeks ago, Historic City News learned that the St Johns County Medical Examiner’s Office was back in the national news. Last time it was about the current and former medical examiners’ being disciplined by the state board over the homicide-turned-suicide finding of the death of Michelle O’Connell. This time, it was District 23 Associate Medical Examiner Deanna A Oleske writing to our newly minted county administrator, Hunter Conrad, on March 23, pleading, “Close the beaches. Please.”
The decision to close then reopen the public beaches in St Johns County was not made without controversy between elected and appointed officials, some from outside the county, and local residents who were split between protecting the health of the community and enjoying the sun and fun of a day at the beach.
St Johns County was late to close its beaches, leaving them open through most of March. On March 29 Conrad ordered the beaches closed. He partly reopened them two weeks later. Officials in Alabama and Georgia, eager to restart their economies, reopened or eased restrictions at beaches on April 30th. Governor Ron DeSantis, whose home is in Ponte Vedra Beach in St Johns County, has repeatedly said it is up to local officials to open or close beaches. St. Johns was among several Florida counties that granted beach access, choosing to ignore the warnings of medical officials.
According to internal emails obtained by Columbia University’s Brown Institute for Media Innovation, Dr Oleske, acting as the county’s associate medical examiner, warned members of the Board of County Commissioners, Hunter Conrad, and law enforcement officials that the county could not handle a deadly outbreak. Those public records were reviewed and published by The Washington Post.
And, Dr Oleske was not alone. In another email to county officials explaining that the county lost the vendor that cleaned the portable toilets stationed at the beaches, Doug Bataille, senior director of St Johns County Parks and Recreation warned, “The county saw crowds that nearly doubled spring break last year as well as Memorial Day. The volume does not seem to be declining.”
In another Washington Post report, thousands of spring breakers were allowed to party by the ocean instead of following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines on physical distancing, drawing public attention to the consequences of what many residents felt was a bad public policy decision. Coronavirus COVID-19 deaths in Florida remain concentrated in more populated areas of the state such as Miami Beach and Fort Lauderdale.
The tension hit close to home, as well. A photograph surfaced illustrating a clear line of demarcation between the Duval and St Johns County line — not indicated by signs or markers, but by crowds of beachgoers beginning on the St Johns County side after Jacksonville and the Beaches closed their beaches.
In the uncovered e-mail messages, Oleske repeatedly warned officials that her office is “in a dire situation” and that she didn’t have the necessary staff, equipment and capacity to handle all the potential COVID-19 deaths. She said her office, along with the county’s hospitals and funeral homes, could hold a total of 119 bodies. She asked for two refrigerated trailers — one to store corpses and the other to perform autopsies.
“We are facing NUMEROUS issues that are inhibiting us to appropriately staff this office in an expeditious manner BEFORE facing a pandemic of unknown proportions,” Oleske wrote in another email.
According to the Post’s article, Oleske didn’t immediately respond to newspaper’s request for comment.
As “Phase One” of Florida’s recovery plan is fully implemented, local beaches are completely opened, amid a continuing national debate and protests about access to beaches in coastal states. Hashtag “#FloridaMorons” is trending on Twitter, as people flock to reopened Florida beaches.