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Hurricane Recovery Helps Shield Mexico Beach from Pandemic

The El Governor Motel's construction was halted for three weeks to protect workers in the early days of the pandemic. Its reopen date wasn't affected by the virus. But the RV Park next door will open later than planned.
The El Governor Motel's construction was halted for three weeks to protect workers in the early days of the pandemic. Its reopen date wasn't affected by the virus. But the RV Park next door will open later than planned.

Mexico Beach was destroyed by Hurricane Michael, but that destruction may have helped spare it from the effects of the pandemic.

Mayor Al Cathey says statewide restrictions on bars, restaurants and retail stores left the town’s recovering businesses and residents largely unaffected.

“We’ve had that for two years - 18 months - that didn’t bother us at all. That’s the way we lived,” Cathey said. “We didn’t have to change anything.”

Ahead of the summer tourism season, 3% of coronavirus tests in Bay County - where Mexico Beach is located - have been positive. The county has reported at least one new case every day for nearly the last two weeks. So far, there have been almost 100 confirmed cases in the county.

None of Mexico Beach's residents have tested positive for the virus.

But that could change as visitors begin traveling to the area and gathering on the beach.

Cathey says he's concerned this could increase the risk of the virus spreading in the small, remote town. “I hope it all works out. I hope people can enjoy the beach,” he said. “And we don’t have our case rate rising.”

The town doesn’t have any prisons, schools or nursing homes, where outbreaks in other rural communities in the region have occurred.

Residents had been practicing a degree of social distancing before the pandemic. As local restaurants rebuild their dining rooms, they've been serving people from food trucks. The town lacks any indoor public gathering spaces, such as gyms, large grocery stores or bars.

But construction crews have been working on hurricane-damaged houses and businesses all over town.

In the early weeks of the pandemic, renovations were halted on some properties, including the iconic El Governor Motel. Manager Wylie Petty says workers on site were asked to stay home for three weeks when statewide restrictions took effect.

“The contractor that we hired is of that age group that is at a higher risk," Petty said. "The other guy who’s helping him has some underlying conditions that would make him vulnerable."

While the pause on construction didn't affect the motel's reopening date - which hasn't yet been set - it prolonged the opening of the RV park across the street to later this summer, Petty said. “We were hoping to open that a lot sooner.”

For a few weeks, the town's sandy shoreline was also closed. After it reopened, residents were back on the beach with friends.

"It was about time," said Susan Cline, who lives in Mexico Beach. "It needed to be reopened."

On Saturday, she and several of her friends were sitting next to one another talking and watching the waves. "I've noticed more tourists coming back to the area, especially in the last week," Cline said.

She says she’s not worried about catching or spreading the coronavirus.

“Everybody’s been doing what we needed to be doing."

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