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Although criticism spiked after spring breakers packed beaches the past three days, a group of leaders across Pinellas County agreed Tuesday to continue to allow people to enjoy the sand and saltwater.
But officials decided they will urge people to keep distance between themselves and follow the state recommendation to not gather in groups larger than 10 people. Each group must be separated by a distance of six feet.
Additionally, beach vendors and hotel operators will be required to follow federal guidelines about keeping distance between lounge chairs, canopies and other equipment.
Leaders from across the county fear that closing beaches would lead to more calls for police if visitors remained in hotels drinking, especially college students on spring break, officials told the Tampa Bay Times. They also fear that guests congregated in small rooms in hotels will help spread the virus.
Officials agreed that whatever decision was reached, it needed to be agreed upon by all leaders.
“The reality is that people are here,” Pinellas County administrator Barry Burton said. "We will continue to monitor this. If it needs to be re-visited, we will do it.”
Burton said data shows that hotel bookings are dropping in the area and that the travelers will thin in the coming days and weeks.
Redington Shores Mayor Mary Beth Henderson agreed.
“We can’t stop them from going to the beaches,” she said. “What are we going to do with all these people? They’re here. The big message is that we’re consistent.”
Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said it is a crime to violate any of the emergency orders. He said he would rather educate the public about ways to keep safe instead of taking enforcement action. Leaders, he said, are trying to strike a balance.
“Taking peoples’ feet off the sand isn’t going to solve the problem,” Gualtieri said.
Al Johnson, the mayor of St. Pete Beach, said having people out on the beach is better than having them crammed inside hotel rooms and restaurants, where they’d be closer to each other. He also said without the beach, spring breakers could descend on restaurants or hotels and then “everything breaks loose.”
“I think it has got a lot of sense to it and we’re not taking a heavy-handed approach,” he said.
Gregg Mims, the city manager in Indian Rocks Beach, said he is glad that leaders are on the same page.
“There is not a will right now to close the beaches,” he said.
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Bill Horne, Clearwater city manager, said making sure people understand the rules about social distance will help reduce problems. When people are approached in a professional manner, most of them will comply, he said.
Trying to keep people from beaches also poses problems on how a ban would be enforced and whether it could spill over to homeowners with beachfront properties. Some towns have more than two dozen public access points.
The goal of keeping a distance is to reduce the spread of coronavirus, which passes through respiratory droplets that can be left on surfaces.
Coronavirus, known as COVID-19, has infected more than 175,000 people worldwide, killing more than 6,700. It causes symptoms like coughing and fatigue but can also lead to respiratory infections, dangerous especially for elderly people and those with chronic health conditions.
Keeping the beaches open has stoked fears in a neighboring state.
Richard Lougher of Atlanta told the Times that residents are urging Georgia leaders to close the interstates between the two states if beaches remain open.
“I understand there are a lot of stupid Georgians on those beaches, but I will not feel the least bit sorry for them if they are stranded in Florida for the next 30 days,” Lougher said in an email to the Times.
After photographs of spring breakers packed onto Clearwater Beach went viral, the city announced in a Tweet on Tuesday that it would be closing the Pier 60 bait house and fishing pier. The bait house closed immediately and the pier was set to close at 10 p.m. Tuesday night.
Photographs this week of Clearwater Beach showed a standard spring break scene. From above, the herd of beachgoers were dots, running in and out of the water, walking closely with others alongshore or huddling under umbrellas.
Traffic numbers from the city show a 20 percent spike in cars per day on the Memorial Causeway, which connects to the beach, compared to this time last year.
Under the tweet where Clearwater announced the pier closure, people criticized the city for not closing the beach entirely.
Madhav Marathe, a distinguished professor at the University of Virginia for biocomplexity, said even outdoors, there is a risk of coronavirus being spread. He said being outside is generally better than being indoors because of air circulation, but that people are still touching things and risking leaving droplets behind. And anywhere people are clustered is harmful, he said.
“I think that this is serious enough that people should really take it seriously,” he said. “Strong social interventions are the only solution right now. It is inconvenient, it hurts, but that’s the only solution we have.”
He also said places need to act in unison. If one area closes a beach, there’s nothing that would stop people from moving to another area and creating an even denser crowd.
Miami Beach closed the most popular stretches of South Beach on Saturday, with the mayor saying spring break was “over.” South Florida has the highest number of coronavirus cases.
Marathe said places hesitate to shutter big tourist destinations because of the economic impact, but emphasized that without a vaccine, social interventions are the only way people can care for themselves and help slow the spread of disease to others.
“If you delay these strong measures, then you’re likely to get a spread that is going to be very hard to control,” he said.
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