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Open the beaches and pools, Pinellas County administrator and sheriff say

Commissioners will consider a proposal Tuesday to lift restrictions enacted last month.
Clearwater Beach is empty and closed on March 24, 2020. Pinellas County commissioners voted last month to close all beaches to slow the spread of COVID-19. Commissioners will consider a resolution on Tuesday to open beaches and pools.
Clearwater Beach is empty and closed on March 24, 2020. Pinellas County commissioners voted last month to close all beaches to slow the spread of COVID-19. Commissioners will consider a resolution on Tuesday to open beaches and pools. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Apr. 25, 2020
Updated Apr. 25, 2020

The debate to open pools and beaches across Pinellas County will intensify after county administrator Barry Burton asked the County Commission late Friday to lift restrictions that have kept residents off the sand and out of pools for more than a month.

In a three-page memo, Burton recommended that beaches, parking lots and public restrooms open as long as cities have two days to prepare. Pools, including those at hotels, condominiums and commercial businesses, could open with the same two-day notice but capacity must be reduced by 50 percent. Public playgrounds would stay closed, but playgrounds at child care centers could be used with proper cleaning, the memo stated.

In recent weeks, residents have implored the Pinellas County Commission to ease restrictions enacted in March 20. If the resolution passes, residents would be required to maintain a 6-foot distance from one another and not congregate in groups of more than 10. The restrictions need to be gradually lifted so as to not stifle progress the county made to slow the spread of COVID-19, Burton said.

“The next phase is not a return to normality,” Burton wrote. “It is learning how to live with the pandemic while mitigating the impact on our community.”

The commission will consider Burton’s resolution Tuesday. It is expected to be a spirited debate. Commissioners Kathleen Peters and Dave Eggers have asked the board to slowly repeal the beach and pool restrictions. In a meeting this week, Commissioner Ken Welch said he worried more about opening businesses and getting people back to work than allowing them to splash in the water.

Sheriff Bob Gualtieri also said it is time to ease restrictions because the spring break crowds are gone. Medical data shows the “worst is behind” the county, and the emergency orders were never intended to eliminate the virus in the past or in the future, he said. The county has accomplished the goal of stabilizing the number of new cases, he said, adding the data “makes me confident that we can safely open our beaches and pools and this week is the right time to do so.”

The sheriff said he trusts residents to follow social distancing practices, but deputies will “ensure compliance through a gentle reminder” if people don’t follow guidelines.

“At this time, Pinellas County residents have adjusted to the new norm of social distancing,” he said Saturday. “I believe they will continue to responsibly use these best practices on our beaches and in the pools."

Burton’s recommendation comes after he asked municipal leaders for suggestions on how to gradually reopen Pinellas County. Some suggested beaches and pools should stay closed until nonessential businesses could be opened for two weeks. Others wanted some of the country’s most-famous beaches open but limited to exercise.

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

The memo tells commissioners the “options represent an analysis of the best available data, municipal and other stakeholder feedback, demand on resources, and public health considerations from our local health agencies.”

To minimize the virus spread, public restrooms at beaches will need “enhanced cleaning and sanitation.” Pool owners will need to properly clean and sanitize pool decks, furniture, railings, safety devices and other equipment, the memo stated.

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.

If the commission passes the resolution Tuesday, it would extend the county’s safer-at-home order enacted last month. That allowed businesses to remain open with social distancing guidelines in place.

But a statewide emergency order enacted by Gov. Ron DeSantis on April 3 closed all nonessential businesses and limited activity in Florida to essential services.

Burton told commissioners they need to be prepared to move forward if DeSantis lets his emergency order expire on April 30. He said he has no insight on how DeSantis might act.

“This is the beginning of reopening our county,” Burton wrote. “We hope the governor provides guidance on his order before Tuesday.”

Read the memo

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