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Citing fears over the growing coronavirus crisis, the Pinellas County Commission voted to close public beaches and parking along the county’s 35 miles of sand after Friday night for two weeks as another strategy to dissuade crowds amid a public health crisis.
The unanimous vote on Thursday followed a presentation from Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, who made a case for keeping the beaches open. He showed them overhead video footage of the beaches taken by his agency’s helicopter just hours before, and said they showed beach crowds were already thinning out compared to this past weekend.
He asked the commission to consider the enforcement challenges in distinguishing between public and private property lines in sand and the consequences of people congregating in more susceptible areas.
But the majority of commissioners feared the potential catastrophic risks of not acting quickly enough, given that the number of COVID-19 cases locally and across the U.S. are increasing by the day.
“What I am most concerned about is what we don’t know, there is so much that is unfolding health wise” Commissioner Dave Eggers said. “I want to be on the side of proactively doing something.”
The county commission’s order will overrule the Clearwater City Council’s decision earlier this week to close Clearwater Beach for two weeks effective Monday. Clearwater Beach, and all public access beaches in the county, will now close after 11:59 p.m. Friday and stay closed through April 6.
The order to close does not apply to businesses and hotels along the beaches. Before the vote, County Attorney Jewel White cautioned commissioners that shutting down the sand will, in effect, close down those businesses.
The county does not have authority over Honeymoon Island, however. That is a state park, and the county will ask the state to close it as well.
Pinellas joins a number of municipalities across the state that started closing beaches. Miami Beach, Fort Lauderdale and Tampa all shut down its beaches in recent days.
As of Thursday, the state reported 46 known coronavirus cases in the Tampa Bay area. Before commissioners voted, Dr. Ulyee Choe, the director of the Florida Department of Health in Pinellas County, approved the direction officials were headed.
“Any measures that can assist with that social distancing aspect is something I would support,” Choe said.
The decisions from Clearwater and Pinellas County follow a video of a packed Clearwater Beach that went viral on Monday, prompting citizens across the U.S. to unleash a flood of accusations that Pinellas elected officials were enabling a public health crisis. Gualtieri condemned the national media for replaying the video throughout the week, saying beach crowds have dissipated as Spring Break visitors rush home.
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Pinellas hotel occupancies are expected to drop from last weekend’s 80 percent to 20 percent on Friday, according to County Administrator Barry Burton. Gualtieri’s helicopter footage taken earlier Thursday showed only a smattering of people along most cities’ sands. Although crowds could still be seen on Clearwater Beach, it was a drastic decrease from Monday’s scene.
Gualtieri warned the county can only ban people from dry sand. Wet sand and the water falls under state jurisdiction. The sheriff added: “From an enforcement standpoint, that causes huge problems.”
Commissioners were not swayed.
“I am not going to bear the responsibility for an epidemic hitting our county,” Commissioner Karen Seel said.
Gov. Ron DeSantis earlier this week 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. The county has also enforced emergency restrictions that include ordering restaurants and other establishments within the county to stop selling alcohol at 10 p.m.
Then on Wednesday, the Clearwater City Council broke ranks with the rest of Pinellas County and ordered the first beach closure, although not until next week.
Although she ultimately voted to close the beaches, Commissioner Kathleen Peters initially urged them to trust the advice of Gualtieri, who she called the best sheriff in the country, and who is continually monitoring data such as beach crowds and hotel occupancy rates.
DeSantis said at a Thursday news conference that social distancing restrictions have effectively ended Spring Break for tourists and shutting down beaches was not the answer.
"These are not spring break, these are our neighbors who may need to go out there, clear their head,” he said.
But Commissioner Ken Welch, who acknowledged he changed his mind about full closure mid-meeting, said the science shows such a drastic measure is inevitable as the coronavirus spreads.
“It’s a matter of acting now or acting in two weeks,” Welch said.
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