1. News
  2. /
  3. Health

Coronavirus in Florida latest: inmates released, beach closing, free buses

Here’s what you need to know for Thursday, March 19.
People visit Clearwater Beach on Wednesday, March 18, 2020, at sunset where city officials have ordered all its public beaches to close for at least two weeks beginning at 6 a.m. on March 23 to help promote social distancing and limit the spread of coronavirus.
People visit Clearwater Beach on Wednesday, March 18, 2020, at sunset where city officials have ordered all its public beaches to close for at least two weeks beginning at 6 a.m. on March 23 to help promote social distancing and limit the spread of coronavirus. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Mar. 19, 2020
Updated Mar. 20, 2020

Stories about the coronavirus pandemic are free to read as a public service at Sign up for our DayStarter newsletter to receive updates weekday mornings. If this coverage is important to you, consider supporting local journalism by subscribing to the Tampa Bay Times at

• • •

Wednesday marked the biggest surge yet in new coronavirus cases in Florida, with 112 new cases reported. But Gov. Ron DeSantis admitted that not enough people were being tested. The lack of easily available testing means officials don’t know how widespread the virus actually is.

Officials also announced one more death from the virus. As of Thursday morning, Florida had 390 known coronavirus cases -- 46 in the Tampa Bay area -- and eight deaths. The United States had more than 9,400 cases and 150 deaths.

The new cases included a 6-year-old boy in Palm Beach County, the youngest to be diagnosed in Florida. The University of South Florida said that an employee in its counseling office, who had contact with 13 students and several coworkers, tested positive. Officials announced that coronavirus is confirmed or suspected in 19 long-term care facilities, though they’re refusing to identify those facilities. And in Washington, D.C., Miami Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart became the first member of Congress to test positive.

Clearwater Beach will empty — but not until Monday

After photos and videos of tightly packed beachgoers circulated nationally and sparked criticism toward Florida and Clearwater officials, the Clearwater City Council voted Wednesday to close public access to Clearwater Beach. But the closure weren’t to take effect until 6 a.m. Monday.

On Thursday afternoon. Pinellas County commissioners voted unanimously to close all the county’s beaches after Friday night.

Pinellas joins a number of municipalities that have begun closing beaches across the state, including Miami-Dade and Fort Lauderdale that announced beach closures on Sunday. Tampa announced it would close its beaches on Wednesday.

Hillsborough Sheriff releases inmates, suspends evictions

Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister has ordered the release of 164 inmates from the county jail, he said Thursday morning. Chronister said he believes releasing the inmates — people accused of low-level, non-violent crimes — will reduce the risk of coronavirus spreading through the jail. No cases have been confirmed among the roughly 2,700 inmates currently at the county’s two jail facilities.

“These defendants are the lowest public safety risk and were merely sitting in jail because they could not pay the amount to bond out,” Chronister said. “These defendants will still have to answer to the charges against them. It is my hope these individuals will make the most of this opportunity to be with their loved ones, help them prepare, comfort them and quarantine with them.”

The Florida Department of Corrections, which runs the state prison system, has stopped accepting inmate transfers from county jails, which has created a pile-up of jail inmates. About 220 inmates were sleeping on rubber mattresses on the floor of the Pinellas County jail as of Monday, though Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri has said he wants to consider other options before releasing inmates.

The inmate release decision was Chronister’s second major announcement in 24 hours: On Wednesday, he announced that the Sheriff’s Office will not enforce eviction notices through April 20 amid the financial hardship wrought by the pandemic.

State unclear on how bar, nightclub restrictions will be enforced

DeSantis announced new restrictions to bars and nightclubs Tuesday in an effort to slow the spread of coronavirus. But two days later, it’s unclear how exactly those new rules will be enforced.

The governor directed Florida’s Department of Business and Professional Regulation to enforce the order, which functionally closed bars and nightclubs for 30 days. But that agency, which has a history of being unable to keep up with complaints, wouldn’t say how it planned to enforce the order.

The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office and Tampa Police Department are enforcing the order, they said. But law enforcement agencies in Pinellas, Pasco and Manatee counties said they’d defer to the state.

Pinellas’ public buses now free to ride

The many people whose survival depends on public transportation won’t have to pay to ride Pinellas County’s public buses beginning Thursday. The Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority made the decision in an effort to reduce crowding by the fare-box and to limit contact between riders and drivers, a spokeswoman said Wednesday.

• • •

Tampa Bay Times coronavirus coverage

EVENT CANCELLATIONS: Get the latest updates on events planned in the Tampa Bay area in the coming weeks.

STORES REACT TO VIRUS: Some businesses adjust hours or announce temporary closings.

BE PREPARED: Guidelines for essentials to keep in your home should you have to stay inside.

STOCK UP YOUR PANTRY: Foods that should always be in your kitchen, for emergencies and everyday life.

JOIN THE FACEBOOK GROUP: See updates and tips posts, and ask questions of our journalists.

FOLLOW OUR COVERAGE ON SOCIAL MEDIA: Facebook. Instagram. Twitter. Reddit.

LISTEN TO THE CORONAVIRUS PODCAST: New episodes every week, including interviews with experts and reporters

HAVE A TIP?: Send us confidential news tips.

We’re working hard to bring you the latest news on the coronavirus in Florida. This effort takes a lot of resources to gather and update. If you haven’t already subscribed, please consider buying a print or digital subscription.