For recreational boaters, this weekend could be ‘the last hurrah’

Law enforcement officials will be watching closely and if social distancing rules are not followed a shutdown may follow.
Vehicles with watercraft trailers crowd the Seminole Boat Ramp along the intercostal waters Wednesday, March 11, 2020 in Clearwater.
Vehicles with watercraft trailers crowd the Seminole Boat Ramp along the intercostal waters Wednesday, March 11, 2020 in Clearwater. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]
Published April 3, 2020|Updated April 4, 2020

ST. PETE BEACH – In nearly 60 years living in the area and almost 20 working at the Blind Pass marina, Todd Nye had never seen such a boat parade.

“Last weekend was just off the chain with boat traffic,’’ Nye said. “I’ve never seen the volume of boats in the water like that in my life. It looked like Memorial Day and Labor Day times 10.’’

With extremely limited options for recreation and entertainment on land and the beaches closed due to the safer- and now stay-at-home orders resulting from the coronavirus pandemic, people are flocking to the water.

But compliance with the latest social distancing rules — boats keeping 50 feet apart, no more than 10 people on board — could make this weekend a referendum on the chance to stay out there.

After what Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri termed an “ugly” scene on the water last weekend, law enforcement will deploy up to 15 marine units, and they will be watching closely.

"It’s all about doing the right thing,'' Gualtieri said Friday. "Use good judgement, good common sense, follow the rules, make a good faith effort, we’re not going to have a problem. But we really need people to do it.''

If not, he said they will be forced to take action. And if so, marine operators have been told, the consequences will be severe.

“If that doesn’t happen they are planning on closing down marinas, boat ramps, everything. That’s what we’ve heard,’’ said Michael Vinci, whose family owns the Indian Springs Marina in Largo. "This is kind of the last hurrah this weekend.

“There’s a lot of people that are following the rules but it’s the ones that aren’t following the rules that are going to mess it up for everybody else. As of right now, this is about the only thing you can do outside. They’ve closed parks, they’ve closed pretty much any place you can go.’’

The issue, several marina operators said, isn’t the volume of traffic but the boaters congregating at Shell Key, the John’s Pass sand bar, Three Rooker Island and other known gathering spots, as well at tying boats together for impromptu parties.

A shutdown of recreational boating would be a blow to another segment of the business community, as the marinas have had strong sales of gas (and at low prices), bait and supplies from their shops.

"We’ve definitely seen an increase in business in recent weeks,'' said Lisa Shook, a co-owner of O’Neill’s Marina, near the northern end of the Sunshine Skyway. "We’ve been just inundated with phone calls from people asking if our ramps are open.''

Some of those people have come from counties to the south, where access to ramps has been limited, and as far as Orlando, and to the point to where the O’Neill’s staff has to deploy staff to direct parking and limit access, referring callers to other options.

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There also has been an uptick in sales of used and new boats.

"I think some people are just looking at the TV seeing all these people going out on the water and they think, ‘Oh, I need to do that, too,''’ Shook said. "We can’t go to Disney, or Busch Gardens, so let’s get out there.''

Conversely, the Blind Pass marina shut down its boat and waverunner rentals due to a lack of customers, and the Madeira Beach Marina said business overall was down.

Marina operators said they have made concerted efforts to instruct boaters to follow the rules. The Blind Pass Marina also allows liveaboards, so for Nye that has added another layer of enforcing social distancing, including the six-foot rule.

“I have been very strict about it,’’ he said. “I’ve made myself a little unpopular at times.’’

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