Pinellas commission will consider opening parts of beaches for exercise

Commissioners want information on Thursday about possibly opening private pools and parts of beaches.
The view looking south down the mostly empty beach on March 21 in Pass-a-Grille. Pinellas County beaches are now closed.
The view looking south down the mostly empty beach on March 21 in Pass-a-Grille. Pinellas County beaches are now closed. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published April 13, 2020|Updated April 13, 2020

Pinellas County’s world-famous beaches have been nearly empty for three weeks, but that could change on Thursday.

During an emergency meeting Monday for the Pinellas County Commission to extend emergency orders, a majority of the seven commissioners said they want information for a Thursday meeting so they can consider opening private pools at condominiums and parts of the county’s beaches for exercise and recreation.

One such scenario could allow residents to use the shoreline for walking and jogging, but not allow crowds to congregate in beach chairs or under canopies. Another could allow private condominium pools to open, but would prohibit people from gathering on pool decks.

Several commissioners said they supported the idea after residents complained about beaches and condominium pools staying closed. Commissioners did not discuss apartment or club pools.

“People in Pinellas County are being responsible," commissioner Kathleen Peters said, adding that senior citizens need pools for exercise.

Commissioner Dave Eggers cautioned that public parking lots would have to remain closed to people who live outside the county so visitors don’t flood them like last month.

“I do think that there is merit to that,” he said. “I do think that needs to be looked at.”

Related: Thousands of Pinellas businesses will have to close after order from Gov. Ron DeSantis, commission says

Commissioners Janet Long, Ken Welch and Karen Seel agreed to consider a plan on Thursday. Welch warned that any plan should not be done “piecemeal,” because the group is fielding lots of calls from different types of closed businesses.

Board members and county Administrator Barry Burton said they want to hear from Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri and seek input from municipal leaders across the county before making any decision.

Citing fears over the growing coronavirus crisis, the commission voted in March to close public beaches and parking lots along the county’s 35 miles of sand. This came after a video went viral online showing a packed Clearwater Beach, unleashing a flood of accusations from across the country that Pinellas elected officials were enabling a public health crisis.

At the time, Gualtieri made a case for keeping the beaches open, because spring break crowds had thinned and hotel bookings had dropped. He also said residents were following guidelines to maintain a 6-foot distance between people.

Meanwhile, commissioners had called Monday’s meeting to publicly vote to extend emergency orders.

On Thursday, Commission Chairwoman Pat Gerard extended the emergency declarations until April 17. County Attorney Jewel White and Burton had told Gerard she had the authority to extend the orders without holding a meeting because the county had yet to establish a mechanism to hold virtual meetings.

On Friday, political activist Tom Rask accused the group of circumventing the law by not holding a virtual meeting to extend the orders.

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“We don’t want to cause any confusion in the county,” White told commissioners before Monday’s vote. “We don’t believe there was a gap. We need to cover all bases.”

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