Pensacola Beach Officials Lift Swimming Ban, 400 People Fall Ill

Santa Rosa Island officials flew the double-red flag – no swimming – over Pensacola Beach in Florida after a swath of thick oil washed ashore from the Gulf oil spill June 23.

Two days later, against the warnings of federal health officials and based on a visual survey of the beach, the local island authority director, Buck Lee, reopened the beaches for swimming, urging residents and tourists to come back to the beach. Officials left the ultimate decision on whether it was safe to swim to beachgoers.

Local authorities complain that tests to check whether water is safe take 3 days to complete, while the location of oil changes hour to hour. "I went swimming on Saturday in the Gulf, and it was fine," Buck Lee, the official who reopened the beaches, told the Pensacola News Journal. "A day or two later, I might not want to go in there." Some skeptical Pensacola residents say Lee reminds them of the mayor in Jaws who didn't want to ruin business by shutting down beaches to protect swimmers from sharks on a long holiday weekend.