Judge rejects effort from Mike Huckabee, others to access private Florida beaches amid coronavirus

Huckabee and other owners of beachfront property in Walton County sued last week after the state closed beaches in response to the coronavirus.
Image: Mike Huckabee at a Republican presidential debate in Cleveland, Ohio, in 2015.
Mike Huckabee at a Republican presidential debate in Cleveland in 2015.Andrew Harnik / AP file

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By Rebecca Shabad

WASHINGTON — A federal judge in Florida on Monday denied an emergency motion that would have allowed former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and other beachfront property 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 Judge Roger Vinson of the Northern District of Florida heard arguments from attorneys representing both the plaintiffs and Walton County by phone Monday, court documents show.

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 the coronavirus.

The plaintiffs said in their complaint that county sheriff's officials 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 asked the court to declare the county's decision to close private beaches unconstitutional and to award them "just compensation" for the county's temporary use of their properties.

The complaint said 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 The Walton Sun newspaper, Vinson said Monday: "Public beach on the Gulf of Mexico is not defined by legal ownership, but by what is the beach."

Full coverage of the coronavirus outbreak

"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 the state Health Department, Walton County has at least 29 positive COVID-19 cases and no deaths.