Fla. county LE, officials spar over reopening beaches during COVID-19

The Pinellas County Commission is considering reopening beaches for residents to exercise, but law enforcement remain concerned about the spread of COVID-19


Mark Puente
Tampa Bay Times

PINELLAS COUNTY, Fla. — The Pinellas County Commission’s idea to consider opening parts of the closed beaches and condominium pools for exercise might die before the discussion is scheduled to start at a public meeting on Thursday.

Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, who opposed closing the beaches last month, said Tuesday he does not support opening the beaches in a limited capacity because the coronavirus pandemic has not yet peaked in Pinellas County. He fears that opening beaches would further spread the virus, which has killed at least 38 people in the Tampa Bay area, including 15 in Pinellas.

Pinellas County posted beach closure signs in March. On Thursday, the Pinellas County Commission will consider opening parts of the beaches for exercise, despite law enforcement's resistance. (Photo/TNS)
Pinellas County posted beach closure signs in March. On Thursday, the Pinellas County Commission will consider opening parts of the beaches for exercise, despite law enforcement's resistance. (Photo/TNS)

“I’m not going to go back and visit the past,” Gualtieri said during a Facebook Live discussion with county Administrator Barry Burton. “That ship sailed. There is nothing to fix this other than distance and keeping people apart. Why would we back off something we already put in place?"

During a public meeting on Monday, a majority of the Pinellas County Commissioners said they want information for a Thursday meeting so they can consider opening private pools at condominiums and parts of the county’s beaches for exercise and recreation. Several residents complained about the closures.

Commissioners will receive updated data projections on Thursday from the Florida Department of Health in Pinellas County on whether the coronavirus spread is increasing or or decreasing, Burton said. The county, he said, is not at the point where the numbers are rapidly decreasing.

“At this point, we don’t need to go backward to look at what would occur if, in fact, we loosened up on these restrictions,” Burton said. "The restrictions are in place. They’re consistent with almost every other part of the country. "

Citing fears over the growing coronavirus crisis, the commission voted in March to close public beaches and parking lots along the county’s 35 miles of sand. This came after a video went viral online showing a packed Clearwater Beach, unleashing a flood of accusations from across the country that Pinellas elected officials were enabling a public health crisis.

Clearwater City Manager Bill Horne said he cannot support opening the beaches until the virus curve has flattened and the number of new positive tests decreases.

The idea to ease beach restrictions surprised Horne. He said he expects and understands that commissioners might be getting pressure from the business community to make changes to the safer-at-home orders.

“I don’t see how you would enforce a limited opening of the beaches,” he said. “It will be very difficult for our law enforcement agencies to police. The beaches still need to be closed. It’s premature."

During Monday’s meeting, Commissioner Dave Eggers suggested that keeping public parking lots closed would prevent visitors coming from outside the county. Horne disagreed and said that type of plan “doesn’t even serve the needs of the people who live here. People aren’t going to walk to the beach.”

Clearwater Police Chief Dan Slaughter agrees with Horne’s concerns and does not support beach openings, a department spokesman said.

Pinellas Commissioner Janet Long, who supported the idea of hearing information about easing beach restrictions, changed her position on Tuesday. In a newsletter, she said it “would be detrimental to our community at this point, but would very likely hurt us all much more in the long run.”

Gregg Mims, the Indian Rocks Beach city manager, said the city will support whatever decision the commission makes. The beach closures have “greatly reduced the use of the beach for out-of-town guests,” he said, but residents continue to walk the beach daily.

“In reality, the beaches are being used for walking today,” Mims said in a statement.

In Madeira Beach, City Manager Robert Daniels said that any beach opening needs to be done with a regional approach. The city’s shoreline has been nearly empty since the closures and “very few people are out and about," he said. He said he expects county commissioners to heed the advice from local health officials.

“We just can’t take this lightly,” Daniels said. “Is the time right? I don’t know."

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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