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Pinellas beaches called coronavirus risk; sheriff demands social distancing

Leaders across Pinellas County made the uniform call on Tuesday to keep beaches open. Clearwater will discuss the question of whether to close its beach on Wednesday.

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UPDATE: Clearwater Beach will close to the public for two weeks starting Monday, the City Council decided Wednesday.

Pinellas deputies on Wednesday fanned out to hotels and businesses from north Clearwater Beach down to the southern end of St. Pete Beach, a letter in hand.

The county’s gem — 35 miles of sandy white beaches — have remained open despite increasingly urgent public health warnings to avoid crowds to stem the spread of the coronavirus.

In order to keep beaches open, Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said authorities need hotels and other businesses with beach access to enforce statewide social distancing requirements. So he sent his deputies up and down the coastline with a message: police yourselves.

"It has to be both: the tourists and the visitors, but it’s also the residents” who must be responsible, the sheriff said. If not, Gualtieri said he’ll consider imposing more drastic measures, such as restricted hours and traffic flow — or closing the beaches altogether.

Pinellas County and city officials on Tuesday made the uniform call to keep the beloved public spaces open, citing the predicament that thousands of tourists stuck in town would be displaced to more susceptible areas like hotels and restaurants.

Related: Coronavirus Florida: Officials across Pinellas County agree to keep beaches open

But there has been pushback.

Clearwater Beach, the country’s top-rated beach, made national news this week as photos of hordes of tourists crowding the shores went viral. City Halls and county offices have been flooded with angry calls and emails criticizing the move.

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. That decision has also drawn backlash.

“These kids are going to go back to their home states and the stories will begin that they contracted the #coronavirus in Florida,” former Congresswoman Gwen Graham tweeted in response. “Florida will be condemned for not doing what we should be doing to disperse these crowds on our beaches. This is not a tough call, DeSantis, do it.”

The Clearwater City Council held an emergency meeting at 5 p.m. Wednesday and voted 4-1 to close Clearwater Beach, breaking with the rest of Pinellas County.

Although dozens of beaches on both sides of the state remain open, Miami and Fort Lauderdale officials on Sunday announced those popular beaches would be closed to the public.

Gwen Douse, who lives in a condo on Clearwater Beach, implored city officials in an email this week to follow suit as a matter of public safety.

“I don’t think these county officials are getting the seriousness of this,” she told the Tampa Bay Times. “They are shutting down cities in this country and we haven’t even closed the beach."

On Saturday, 50,847 vehicles drove over the Memorial Causeway bridge, 20 percent more than any day last year, according to data from the Clearwater Police Department. The numbers dropped to 47,211 on Sunday, the most recent data available, but still higher than the same day in 2019.

Visitors enjoy Clearwater Beach Wednesday.
Visitors enjoy Clearwater Beach Wednesday. [ CHRIS O'MEARA | AP ]

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.”

The Palm Pavilion on Clearwater Beach had a quieter St. Patrick’s Day on Tuesday than previous years. But co-owner Hoyt Hamiltion, who is also a Clearwater City Council member, caught heat on social media for his restaurant still hosting crowds of diners and drinkers.

Hamilton said the restaurant removed 50 percent of its tables and chairs to adhere to state guidance limiting restaurant capacities. But he said he supports the uniform action taken throughout the county to prevent displacing restless tourists from one city to the next.

He also fears that if the beaches were to close, it would cause crowds to flock to nearby restaurants, creating more of a health crisis.

“We can't have Redington Beach with one set of rules and Clearwater with another and Tarpon with another,” he said. “That’s like putting your finger in a dike and the water starts coming out somewhere else.”

For Deb and Greg Higgins, there’s nothing left but the beach. The couple, visiting Treasure Island from Wisconsin, was celebrating Deb Higgins’ 65th birthday on Wednesday. But instead of going to a restaurant for lobster, she planned to cook steak in the hotel room.

In the time they’ve been in Florida, coronavirus has spread through the state — and their home county — and caused restaurants to operate at half capacity, bars to close early and the cancelation of nearly all public events and mass gatherings.

Their celebration in the morning was sitting at the beach. Said Deb Higgins: “This is the only thing we can do.”

Even there, they sit in chairs turned away from most of the crowd.

“We’re trying to stay away from people,” she said. “If somebody kind of encloses on us we pick up and move away.”

Mark Cameron, visiting from Connecticut, said he noticed resort beach chairs had been spaced out more compared to the day before.

He and his wife Donna said it was better to be by the beach, spread apart, rather than crowded around the hotel pool. With all other events shuttered, it’s all they can do with their last few days in town.

“We did want to go to the Dalí Museum, it was one of the reasons we came here," said Mark Cameron, 62. "So that was disappointing.”

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