When Pinellas County reopens its beaches and businesses, officials want to move slowly

The county administrator and sheriff had asked leaders for input in advance of Tuesday’s Pinellas County Commission meeting.
The scene of the beach looking out from Eighth Avenue in Indian Rocks Beach on March 20. Pinellas County closed all beaches last month.
The scene of the beach looking out from Eighth Avenue in Indian Rocks Beach on March 20. Pinellas County closed all beaches last month. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published April 23, 2020|Updated April 23, 2020

Municipal leaders along Pinellas County’s shoreline support opening nonessential businesses, but are divided on how beaches, eateries and bars should open if Gov. Ron DeSantis’ emergency stay-at-home order expires next week.

At the request of county administrator Barry Burton and Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, leaders of many Pinellas towns submitted dozens of ways to ease restrictions so residents can again earn paychecks and possibly enjoy the 35 miles of pristine beaches.

While divided on beaches and businesses, the leaders are united in requiring people to maintain a 6-foot distance from one another and to avoid gathering in large groups, so they can limit a further spread of COVID-19. They also want to fall back under the county’s earlier safer-at-home order that required many businesses to close at 10 p.m. When residents return to beaches, it could only be for exercising under a phased plan, some suggested, and restaurant capacities should be reduced by 50 percent.

Several municipal leaders also want the public to wear face masks, according to a review of records.

“This will become the new normal for quite some time, so the more we practice it, the less of an inconvenience it becomes,” Madeira Beach City Manager Bob Daniels wrote about the social distancing and masks.

The governor’s emergency order has limited all activity in Florida to essential services since April 3, but the County Commission closed all beaches five weeks ago to limit the spread of COVID-19. County leaders want to lay the groundwork for a new plan in case DeSantis lifts his order.

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

Gualtieri and Burton are examining medical data, including the percentage of positive COVID-19 tests and the number of people in the 14-day incubation period, to determine if the pandemic has peaked in the county. They expect to inform commissioners on Tuesday.

County and city leaders don’t want a repeat of last month when thousands of people packed Clearwater Beach and a viral video unleashed a flood of accusations from across the globe that Pinellas elected officials were enabling a public health crisis.

Clearwater’s detailed plan comes with several caveats, City Manager Bill Horne said in an interview. The three-phase approach does not describe a hard and fast plan, but rather a list of guidelines the city could change at any time in response to future COVID-19 outbreaks.

Like the White House’s “Opening Up America Again” guidelines, Clearwater and others prefer openings to come in phases.

For example, in the first phase, Clearwater Beach would open from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. and from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. to recreational users only. There would be no relaxation or sunbathing allowed, only exercise. The city would station lifeguards and police officers to make sure beachgoers behave. In phase two, the beach would reopen with no special time or lawful activity restrictions, but people would have to maintain a social distance of 6 feet on the sand. Umbrella rental companies could serve customers, but only at 50 percent capacity.

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Beach reopening drew the most suggestions.

The Belleair Shore Commission wants beaches fully opened. Indian Rocks Beach wants public parking and restrooms opened. Treasure Island doesn’t want parking opened, but prefers parks and recreation centers to open.

Tarpon Springs said beaches and pools should open only after nonessential businesses have returned for two weeks. St. Pete Beach agreed.

“Getting people to jobs should be a priority," St. Pete Beach City Manager Alex Rey wrote. “All businesses should be open before getting them to have a good time at the beach.”

Dunedin supports a countywide approach to opening “to ensure equitability among businesses" and wants ample notice so businesses can recall employees.

Still, Gualtieri said, the number of positive COVID-19 tests has to go in the right direction to open back up. He cautioned that the number of positive cases could rise, but the county is below its projected peak.

“We are not going to have robust testing in the foreseeable future," he said Wednesday. “We have to manage expectations.”

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