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CLEARWATER — While thanking residents for complying with orders to stay off county beaches, Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri took shots at the national media and county leaders on Saturday, who he said caved to pressure to close beaches in an imprecise and unenforceable manner.
“There was a problem here Monday," said the Sheriff, referencing the crowds of spring breakers on Pinellas beaches that appeared on television sets across the country, which elicited criticism of county leaders for not doing enough to help stop the spread of coronavirus. "That problem wasn’t here Wednesday, Thursday or Friday.”
And yet, Gualtieri, speaking during a news conference at Clearwater Beach’s Pier 60, said he saw the video clip replayed on CNN and other networks as recently as Thursday.
“That attitude with this exacerbated the situation and probably influenced some decisions to be made that probably didn’t need to get made," he said.
County Commissioners on Thursday voted to close the beaches, despite a plea from the Sheriff, whose agency patrols all the beaches in the county but those in three municipalities — Clearwater, Indian Shores and Treasure Island — which have their own police departments. Gualtieri warned enforcing such a closure would be challenging, as it can be difficult to distinguish public from private property. He also showed commissioners video taken from the Sheriff’s Office’s helicopter earlier Thursday which showed the beach crowds had already started to thin out.
“If (Monday’s crowd) was happening in that moment," he said Saturday, “I’d be the first one with my hand up saying... we’ve got to take swift action. But that’s not the case.”
The beach closure took effect Friday night. The decision to close the sand during spring break season put Pinellas among the ranks of municipalities across the state that closed beaches, including Miami Beach, Fort Lauderdale and Tampa.
As of Saturday morning, Florida health officials were tracking 658 positive cases of COVID-19, the illness caused by coronavirus, within the state. Twelve have died.
Gualtieri also blasted county leaders for caving to the pressure to implement what he characterized as bad law, and for ramping up the response “exponentially" before giving other “mitigation measures” a chance to work.
“In order for the law to be fair, equitable, and the right thing to be done, it needs to be unequivocally clear," Gualtieri said. “And this is about as far from that principle as you can get.”
In some instances, folks can still be on the beach, walking along the wet sand near the water line, where the Sheriff’s Office doesn’t patrol. And they can relax in cabanas on private beaches that are managed by hotels or condos.
It’s the public beaches and their parking lots the county’s Thursday ruling targeted. Even there, he said, deputies are not relying on citations or arrests to enforce the beach closure, but rather informing people of the rules and encouraging them to comply.
“People are going to about have to beg their way into jail," the Sheriff said. "But if they beg, and they do something that’s really, really silly and they’re very flagrant about it, and they don’t listen to many asks, then we’ll do what we got to do. But that’s going to be an absolutely few and far between, and I hope, a totally nonexistent, situation.”
And so far, most people have complied, Gualtieri said. The Sheriff’s Office’s helicopter again flew along the beaches, from Belleair up to north Clearwater Beach, and the pilots reported the crowd was light, with no more than five people in any one place.
Clearwater Police Chief Daniel W. Slaughter’s message during the news conference was that the decisions may be controversial, but they’ve already been made.
“So we all just need to be in a mindset of compliance as we get through this virus,” Slaughter said.
Gualtieri also provided an update on the status of the Pinellas County Jail — administered by the Sheriff’s Office — which saw its population balloon this week after the Florida Department of Corrections stopped accepting inmates from county jails to state prisons.
Earlier this week, the Pinellas jail had 220 inmates sleeping on the floor. Gualtieri said after releasing about 200 inmates on Friday, about 60 inmates are sleeping on the jailhouse floor.
Gualtieri said Pinellas reduced the jail population “through the normal process, and not with sweeps.” He also said officers across the county have been using discretion and issuing notices to appear in court rather than making arrests. The Sheriff said arrests are down to a quarter to a third of their usual levels.
In court, judges and prosecutors took a rapid-fire approach to resolve cases or grant bail to get people out, which he said was "the way it should be done.”
It was a shot at Hillsborough’s jail system, which purged 164 inmates this week after Hillsborough’s chief judge, Ronald Ficarrotta, signed an administrative order authorizing Sheriff Chad Chronister to release certain inmates accused of low-level, non-violent crimes during the current state of emergency.
“They can do what they want, but I saw they were releasing people who were burglars and possession of cocaine charges,” Gualtieri said. "And I don’t think that’s the right thing to do.”
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