Why are Pinellas parks still open?

Hillsborough County and Tampa have closed their parks. But densely-populated Pinellas County and its largest cities have kept them open.
Eagle Lake Park, a county park in Largo, Friday morning.
Eagle Lake Park, a county park in Largo, Friday morning. [ CHARLIE FRAGO | Times ]
Published April 3, 2020|Updated April 3, 2020

LARGO — If you want to take in the Tampa skyline from Julian B. Lane Park, you’re out of luck. Mayor Jane Castor closed nearly all the city’s parks last week.

Hillsborough County did the same with its parks through an administrative action by County Administrator Mike Merrill.

But across the bay, Pinellas County and its largest cities, St. Petersburg and Clearwater, have decided to keep them open. Officials in Florida’s most-densely populated county say its nearly one million residents need a place to stretch their legs during the extended home confinement defined by the coronavirus pandemic.

After Gov. Ron DeSantis issued a statewide safer-at-home order Wednesday, local governments scrambled to see how that affected countywide orders. But parks weren’t affected, said Pinellas County Administrator Barry Burton.

“People are just trying to blow off steam, they’ve been cooped up for a little while,” said Burton Friday.

By and large, people are following the county, and now state, orders to maintain a six-foot distance between themselves and others, he said.

“We’ve seen very few instances where people aren’t following the rules,” he said, adding that county park employees and deputies are monitoring the situation and have broken up the occasional large social gatherings.

Playgrounds have been closed, which was a hard decision, Burton said. For awhile, county employees were sanitizing the equipment hourly, but it proved impossible to keep children safe, he said. Shelters were also closed, but “if a couple wants to sit and have lunch, that’s perfectly fine,” Burton said.

In Clearwater, city parks remain open, although officials are monitoring basketball and tennis courts to make sure they don’t get too busy, said Joelle Castelli, the city’s spokeswoman.

Clearwater, like the county, has also kept its dog parks open, she said.

“People are very much missing their social interaction, that’s part of their normal routine,” Castelli said. “We’re just asking them to stay apart.”

St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman has also kept his city’s parks open, although he has threatened to issue citations if people continue to ignore social distancing rules.

On Friday, his spokesman Ben Kirby said the mayor’s position hasn’t changed.

“The mayor doesn’t think safer at home will be more successful if we shut down parks. He has repeatedly said the outdoors are important, and our residents have generally used them wisely,” Kirby texted.

Since DeSantis’s order didn’t address parks, local governments have charted their own course, Burton said. Miami-Dade, like Hillsborough, chose to shutter its parks through local orders, although Tampa has left the linear parks of Bayshore Boulevard and the Riverwalk open.

Any of Pinellas’ 24 municipalities could choose to close their parks, Burton said.

“That’s their decision. And every situation is a little different,” he said.

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