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UPDATE: All Pinellas beaches will shut down after Friday night. The Pinellas County Commission’s decision overrules Clearwater’s decision, which means Clearwater Beach will also close after 11:59 p.m. Friday.
CLEARWATER — The City Council voted on Wednesday to close public access for two weeks to Clearwater Beach, one of the nation’s top tourist destinations, as a precaution to stem the spread of the coronavirus.
The closure will take effect at 6 a.m. on Monday to give businesses time to prepare for the impact of fewer visitors. However the closure only applies to feet in the sand. It does require businesses on Clearwater Beach to close and will not affect access to the Memorial Causeway bridge.
The decision is a break from the unified stance reached Tuesday by Pinellas County and city leaders to keep the public beaches open amid fears that thousands of tourists would be displaced to more susceptible areas like hotels and restaurants, and that restless residents would congregate elsewhere.
But concerns over the spread of the virus prevailed. Clearwater Beach made national news this week as photos of hordes of tourists crowding the shores went viral, and the city was inundated with criticism. Clearwater now joins Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Tampa as municipalities that have closed beaches to the public.
"This is an opportunity for the number one beach in the country to say that we value public health,” Clearwater Mayor George Cretekos said. “Don’t kid yourself because we’ve only got (10) cases in Pinellas County. It’s going to go up. I don’t want it to come back and haunt us to say it happened here because Clearwater was not willing to stick its neck out and and be a leader.”
The motion passed 4-1 with council member David Allbritton in opposition. It accompanied a resolution that declared a state of emergency in the city, effectively shutting down all libraries and most public meetings.
Gov. Ron DeSantis on Tuesday signed an order that would limit groups on beaches to 10 people but stopped short of ordering all of the state’s beaches to close. But Clearwater was joined by Tampa on Wednesday when Mayor Jane Castor ordered the closure of that city’s four, much smaller beaches: Ben T Davis Beach, Cypress Point Beach, Davis Islands Beach and Picnic Island Beach.
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Allbritton questioned the danger beachgoers faced as Clearwater Beach’s volume continues to decrease amid concerns over public health.
“Everybody is doing their part,” Allbritton said. “The cabanas on the beach are spread out. Our beach area is huge … the beach is a hostile environment for viruses.”
Some medical professionals disagree.
Madhav Marathe, a distinguished professor of biocomplexity at the University of Virginia, said though the virus is less likely to spread in outdoor air, anywhere people are crowded and touching items puts them at risk.
He said people still cluster with their friends and family, and may touch things like volleyballs, towels, umbrellas and chairs that others use. Without a vaccine for coronavirus, prevention is all people can do.
“Strong social interventions are the only solution right now,” he said. “It is inconvenient, it hurts, but that’s the only solution we have.”
Earlier Wednesday, Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri sent deputies to visit all 35 miles of county beaches with letters urging hotel and business owners to adhere to state social distancing guidelines. The letters urged residents to police themselves so more drastic measures would not have to be enacted.
Gualtieri later criticized Clearwater’s decision to close its beach, saying the council was responding to a video that went viral on Monday. Since then, beach crowds have thinned, the sheriff said, as has the hotel occupancy rate. It was at about 80 percent last weekend, he said, and this weekend it is projected to drop to about 30 percent.
“You shouldn’t make decisions on history,” he said. “You should make decisions on what’s happening today.”
Pinellas County Administrator Barry Burton said officials have not issued a county-wide beach closure because they were relying on measures like enforcing state social distancing guidelines and prohibiting alcohol sales after 10 p.m. He said even though beach crowds are dissipating by the day, “what we saw on Clearwater Beach a few days ago” cannot occur.
“Nobody is right or wrong here,” Burton said. “We share the same goal in trying to protect the public."
The closure will be enforced by Clearwater officers patrolling entryways to the sand and public parking that feeds to the beach, said Police Chief Dan Slaughter.
The next time the Council re-evaluates the beach closure at its April 2 meeting, there will be three new officials on the dais. On Tuesday, voters elected financial adviser and former mayor Frank Hibbard to succeed the term-limited Cretekos as mayor. Filmmaker Mark Bunker was elected to Seat 2 to succeed council member Jay Polglaze, who did not seek re-election. And retired teacher Kathleen Beckman defeated Bob Cundiff, who was seeking a second term in Seat 3. The new council members are expected to be sworn into office on March 30.
On Wednesday, three beach business owners implored the Council to refrain from closing the beach, citing the impact it will have on businesses already struggling from the effects of the pandemic.
“I think we’ve got to take baby steps,” said business owner Rusty Pearl. “Just to overreact 100 percent to everybody goes to their homes, shut everything down.
"I don’t know where the world goes or what we come back to.”
In a later interview, Cretekos stood by the decision as the right thing to do for the safety of the public. He encouraged residents to continue to frequent businesses and restaurants on the beach, while adhering to social distancing guidelines.
“We’re going to continue to encourage our local residents to go to the beach and support our businesses,” the mayor said. “We’re all in this together, it doesn’t matter where you live.”
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