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Emergency Measures Force Closing of Marine Activities

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Ocean Ridge sign proclaims that its beaches are closed
Ocean Ridge sign proclaims that its beaches are closed

Captain Jim Hill got his master’s license in 1996. He began taking divers into the Atlantic Ocean aboard Loggerhead out of the Boynton Beach marina in 2000. Many events have occurred during his long experience as a scuba diver, dive boat captain and owner of a dive business. Nothing compares to the total embargo that has shut down marine operations throughout Florida.

Editorial by John Christopher Fine

“This is spring break and Easter. A busy time for dive operators. We can’t run. No money is coming in. I can understand what they are saying about quarantine but it is hurting business really bad,” Captain Hill spoke quietly, clearly distressed that his operations have been shut down at a most critical time when tourists enjoy Florida’s marine activities.

What Captain Hill pointed out next was telling, “Consider the aftereffects when we are allowed to go back to work. People will be so far in debt they will not have the funds to go diving. That in turn hurts my business.” What this dive boat owner and operator describes is at the crux of the situation that has stopped the world in its tracks.

Captain Hill’s concerns are echoed by Adam Birdwell, owner of Starfish Scuba, operated out of the Boynton Harbor Marina at the same dock used by Loggerhead. “Essentially March and April are the fourth and fifth highest grossing months. We are losing those months. We can’t run charters with close contact, we have suspended all services, cancelled instruction and rentals. We do dive travel. People would be booking with us now. We have nothing, it has come to a screeching halt,” Adam said.

Dive instructors have seen their income cut off. Jeff Nelson, a veteran instructor with the Force-E dive store at Riviera Beach, gateway to one of Florida’s most popular shore-access dive sites at the Blue Heron Bridge, is very concerned. “It is totally blocked. There is tape across, and sheriff’s officers do not allow anyone in except those that have commercial licenses to fish for the food market to launch their boats. They will not let anyone walk on the beach; divers cannot do a shore dive…”

Mandated beach closures at the height of spring break and beginning of Easter holidays result in empty beaches on a beautiful calm Atlantic Ocean day in Ocean Ridge, Florida
Mandated beach closures at the height of spring break and beginning of Easter holidays result in empty beaches on a beautiful calm Atlantic Ocean day in Ocean Ridge, Florida

In the next moment Jeff expressed utter frustration at government’s unwillingness to be blamed thus a vast overreaching of authority when he said “Divers don’t get together on the beach. They dive underwater. Underwater photographers want to be alone, so their work is not disturbed. They breathe through their regulators; they will not breathe on somebody underwater.”

For dive instructors the dilemma is that pools are closed, they cannot bring students together thus there is no income. Instructors also earn their livelihood guiding divers. That income source has dried up. Jeff Nelson explained that rental gear has always been sterilized as a matter of routine. “We are operating with a skeleton crew at the Riviera Beach store. First responders need to have their tanks filled and have access to gear. For customers that really need equipment they can order it by phone, pay with a credit card then pick it up outside the store.”

Skip Commagere, owner of Force-E, with major dive shops in Riviera Beach, Pompano and Boca Raton, described their response to the emergency: “We are closed. Because we have first responders that require air fills we are keeping a skeleton crew in our stores with abbreviated hours. We’ve kept everyone at full payroll hoping this proposed federal loan will help us. It’s a family here. It would be impossible to replace people we have working for and with us. We have rent and payroll to make.”

Despite their on-line store Skip is concerned as expenses mount without income coming in yet he will not give up. “We have been here for forty years. We hope to be here for the next forty. We are offering training specials online. Divers can do academics that way and complete courses when the pools are available, and we can take them out into the open water.”

Skip is trying to be creative to stay in touch with his customers. We send e-mails so they know we are here and know we care. The last thing we want to do is create a health problem with our customers. Those that are staffing the stores are all volunteers. They do not have to do it,” Skip said. Then he repeated Jeff’s observation: “Breathing compressed air is safe and the marine environment with salt water…” The rest went unsaid.

Clearly every small business will be impacted by governmental restrictions and access. It is because politicians do not want to be blamed for failure to act and prevent the spread of virus that they imposed restrictions without discrimination? Signs on the closed beaches at Ocean Ridge and Gulfstream proclaim, “By order of the governor.” It is a ‘Not us, it’s somebody else, we’re just following orders’ escape. That mentality has been paramount to politician’s incompetence seeking to avoid blame. Overreaction or not everyone is hoping restrictions will be lifted and life can go on without fear of the spread of a deadly virus.