Pinellas County closing public beaches and beach parking

Pinellas County is closing all public beaches and beach parking lots beginning at 11:59 p.m. Friday, March 20, and running through Monday, April 6.

CLEARWATER — Starting at 11:59 p.m. Friday, March 20, all of Pinellas County beaches and public beach parking will be closed until April 4.

After a lengthy debate during an emergency meeting March 19, commissioners voted unanimously to enact the closures in the interest of the public’s health, safety and welfare. The motion also includes making a request to the state to close Honeymoon Island State Park.

Commissioners also unanimously approved action to extend the local state of emergency for another seven days.

The nearly three-hour meeting started with County Administrator Barry Burton updating the commission on the many changes that had happened in the past week.

“People are heeding this national crisis,” he said.

He said county services were moving online as much as possible. Work was ongoing to get more testing capability in the county and secure needed resources, such as supplies for hospitals and first responders.

Then he addressed the big topic — the crowd of people at Clearwater Beach on March 16, which made national news, and caused a problem in terms of perception about the county’s willingness to address the threat of the coronavirus.

Burton pointed out that the actions taken by Gov. Ron DeSantis on March 17 had helped. DeSantis ordered all bars, pubs and nightclubs to close. He limited restaurants’ operations to 50% capacity, with no groups of more than 10 allowed, and requiring customer groups be seated 6 feet apart to maintain social distancing.

Pinellas added one more requirement and that was for restaurants to stop serving alcohol at 10 p.m.

Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, who opposed closing the beaches because he doesn’t think it is necessary, showed a video of the beaches taken around noon Thursday, March 19. The big crowds are gone. Beachgoers were practicing social distancing. Local hotels had spaced seating appropriately.

Gualtieri said people were doing what they had been asked to do.

Burton added that when the big crowds were on the beach on Monday, hotel occupancy had been at 80%. Many cancellations have come in since then and occupancy for the weekend is estimated at 20%.

He presented three possible options commissioners could do. One was to continue as is. The second was to close beach parking, and the third was to close the beaches.

Gualtieri said everyone was in agreement about the gravity of the situation.

“This is unprecedented,” he said.

Gualtieri had deputies, along with help from Clearwater police, deliver a letter to all the businesses on the beach side of Gulf Boulevard on March 18 informing them of the actions taken by the state and county. The letter stated that the county had decided to keep its beaches open, but to maintain that position, help was needed. The letter asked the business owners to voluntarily comply with the emergency orders.

Gualtieri told commissioners that businesses seemed to be doing the right thing. He said the new measures had only been in effect for 48 hours but there had already been a big improvement. He recommended no further action be taken and instead to allow time to see the existing orders would be enough.

The sheriff also said law enforcement had no authority on wet sand. He said that was one thing not discussed when Clearwater voted to close its beach. In addition, enforcement can’t happen beyond the high water line. The only thing local governments can regulate is the areas of dry sand.

In addition, he brought up the issue of private beaches. Many hotels and some businesses in St. Pete Beach have private beaches. At least two hotels on Clearwater Beach have private beaches. Many property owners have private beaches.

He also talked about having the ability to monitor all the beach access points. He said Indian Rocks Beach had 23 access points. He said people also could access the beach by boat.

“It’s hard to regulate the beach,” he said.

He pointed out that if the public was restricted from accessing the beaches, they had to go somewhere. In his opinion it was better for them to be outdoors as opposed to congregating inside.

While the commission made it clear that they understood and respected the sheriff’s position, Commission Chair Pat Gerard said the public was looking to the County Commission to take action.

“People need to trust us,” she said.

Using emails sent to the commissioners as a gauge, she said it was clear Pinellas County residents wanted the beaches to be closed.

She said she could support closing public parking on the beach, adding that spring break would likely continue for months as schools nationwide remained closed. Commissioner Janet Long agreed with Gerard about the problem of schools remaining closed and young people still wanting to go out.

“They don’t care about others,” she said. “It is me, me, me, mine, mine, mine.”

Commissioner Dave Eggers said, “I’m most concerned about what we don’t know. So much is unfolding each day.”

He said in a week or two the situation could be dramatically different, adding that he suspects the number of cases of the coronavirus will grow significantly.

“I want to be proactive, not reactive,” he said.

He said closing the beaches would send a powerful message that people should stay home.

Commissioner Ken Welch asked the county’s Department of Health Director Ulyee Choe for his opinion. Choe agreed with everyone that these are unprecedented times and said the situation is rapidly evolving. He supports any action that helps with social distancing.

Commissioner Karen Seel said it was important to look at the short term versus the long term and the economic impact. She favors taking aggressive steps to try to prevent the spread in hopes of reducing the long term impact.

“I don’t want anyone to die from this,” she said. “I want to be very proactive and stop this virus in this county.”

Suzette Porter is TBN's Pinellas County editor. She can be reached at sporter@tbnweekly.com.