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On the final day that its world-famous beaches were open, Pinellas County and municipal leaders worked to finalize plans for keeping people off the white sands during the pandemic crisis.
Elected officials and town managers fielded calls from residents asking how the emergency order to close public beaches and parking for the next two weeks would apply to hundreds of hotels, motels, apartments and homes along the county’s 35 miles of sand.
It’s muddy. The order applies only to dry sand on public property, not wet sand at the waterline or bike paths, boat ramps and people in the water. It also does not apply to the privately owned beach behind residences and some hotels.
Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said the invisible property lines between public and private sands makes the order “impossible to enforce” once it goes into effect at 11:59 p.m. Friday. Deputies will be reasonable and work to educate people if problems arise, Gualtieri said.
“We will only address those situations where it is a large crowd clearly in a public place,” he said Friday. “We are not going to cite anybody or make arrests. Just you use common sense and judgment.”
The decision to close the beaches came after a video went viral on Monday that showed Clearwater Beach packed with visitors, unleashing a flood of accusations that Pinellas elected officials were enabling a public health crisis.
Even as Spring Break crowds began to thin, the Clearwater City Council voted on Wednesday to close Clearwater Beach effective Monday. Hotel occupancies are expected to drop from last weekend’s 80 percent to 20 percent this weekend.
But on Thursday, a majority of county commissioners feared the potential catastrophic risks of not acting quickly enough, given that COVID-19 cases locally and across the U.S. are increasing by the day.
The closure of all public beaches in Pinellas, including Clearwater Beach, will be in effect until April 6. The Pinellas County Commission will then decide whether or not to extend the emergency order.
On Clearwater Beach, hoards of beachgoers have begun to disperse. On March 14, Clearwater police data shows 50,847 vehicles drove over the Memorial Causeway bridge, 20 percent more than any day last year.
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By Thursday, the number of cars on the bridge dropped to 28,843, which is an 11 percent decline compared to the same day in 2019.
“At the end of the day I don’t think it’s as complicated as it sounds," Clearwater city manager Bill Horne said. "The big picture is don’t be on the beach.”
Clearwater Police Chief Dan Slaughter said his officers will patrol entryways to the sand and the beach itself. Parking lots that primarily serve the beach will be blocked while parking areas for businesses will remain open.
But the city is largely relying on messaging to discourage people from coming to the beach in the first place. If officers see visitors on the sand, the strategy is verbal enforcement, Slaughter said.
“We’ll explain to them the rules and then politely tell them to leave,” the chief said. “If they refuse, we’ll explain to them they could be charged with a crime. In today’s day and age, you don’t get challenged often beyond that. Most people don’t want to get arrested.”
In Clearwater, the beaches directly behind the Sheraton Sand Key, SandPearl and Hilton Clearwater Beach resorts are private. There are also private sands behind residences on north beach and Sand Key, as well as throughout Pinellas County.
Slaughter said distinguishing where the private beach ends and the public begins is not something his officers are equipped to do. Private property owners are permitted on their beaches, but the county’s emergency order instructs them to follow social distancing guidance.
How will an officer know if a sunbather is on a private beach or has inched over the line into public sands?
Said Slaughter: “I hate to use the words next to impossible, but it’s next to impossible."
Officials have called the beach closure unprecedented. Communities across the county reacted accordingly, scrambling on Friday to erect signs, barricades and other measures to alert residents and visitors.
Even before the closure, Redington Shores closed its beach parking lot on Friday and eliminated parking on the west side of Gulf Boulevard in an attempt to thin crowds.
Hotel operators have had to ensure that registered guests are the only visitors on their beaches, said Robin Miller, CEO of the Tampa Bay Beaches Chamber of Commerce.
Although the emergency order also closed the Dunedin Causeway beach, which leads to Honeymoon Island, the Causeway’s popular walking trail will remain open. Dunedin Mayor Julie Ward Bujalski said the city is putting barricades in front of the parking areas that serve the Causeway beach.
State officials on Friday closed Honeymoon Island, a state park.
“If nothing else, this is a huge reduction in congregation,” Bujalski said.
As beach closures and social distancing guidelines take effect, beach businesses are feeling the toll.
Clyde Smith, general manager of the Bilmar Beach Resort in Treasure Island, said he had to furlough 30 percent of his employees on Friday as booking fell from 95 percent to 25 percent — the lowest in the resort history.
“Our guests are following the mandate for social distancing,” he said. “The guests here understand the reasoning. It’s gut wrenching.”
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