Five things to know about Florida’s closed (for now) beaches

Florida’s Spring Break-filled beaches created a national firestorm. But even as the pandemic continues, some want them reopened.
Aerial view of an empty Clearwater Beach on April 10, which was closed by order of the Pinellas County Commission. Will the commission loosen those restrictions?
Aerial view of an empty Clearwater Beach on April 10, which was closed by order of the Pinellas County Commission. Will the commission loosen those restrictions? [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published April 28, 2020|Updated April 28, 2020

Some states and communities are starting to ease restrictions put in place to slow the spread of the coronavirus. In Florida, that question has focused on the state’s most valuable asset: Its beaches.

Related: Florida surpasses 1,100 deaths from the coronavirus, with more than 32,000 known cases

Some Florida beaches have reopened, while many have not. Tampa Bay’s beaches have not reopened, but officials here are pondering that question.

Here are five things to know about why Florida’s beaches are closed, what’s happening to beaches elsewhere and what’s next.

Why reopen Florida’s beaches now?

Reopening Florida’s beaches sends the message that the state is returning to some semblance of normalcy. The beaches are the state’s definitive cultural, physical asset and economic asset. Tourism is the state’s No. 1 industry, after all.

Pinellas County closed its beaches on March 20, joining South Florida’s beach communities. Gov. Ron DeSantis’ statewide safer-at-home order went into effect on April 3, closing all but essential businesses and services. But local officials were already closing their beaches.

The push to reopen started had its first breakthrough two weekends ago, when Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry reopened Duval County’s beaches on April 17. “Do it in a good way. Do it in a safe way,” DeSantis said in support of reopening outdoor spaces so long as distancing guidelines were still followed.

The move drew crowds and controversy, as images of crowded beaches spread online along with the hashtag #FloridaMorons.

But communities from the Panhandle to the Space Coast followed suit, despite health experts cautioning that far more testing is needed before it becomes safe enough to reopen the state.

Tampa Bay’s beaches are still closed. But that could change soon. Pinellas County Administrator Barry Burton has asked county commissioners to pull back restrictions on beaches and pools, and Sheriff Bob Gualtieri supports the idea.

The Pinellas County Commission will consider the issue when it meets Tuesday.

To shut down or not to shut down?

Florida drew unwanted attention early in the pandemic as spring breakers packed the beaches: Videos of blasé teenagers and twenty-somethings, unworried about the virus, spread on social media. Health experts feared what would happen as those tourists returned home, possibly carrying the contagious virus with them across the country and world.

Officials in South Florida began limiting beach access in mid-March. Beaches in the Tampa Bay area weren’t shut down as quickly: Days after Miami Beach’s mayor declared spring break “over,” Burton and Gualtieri were still advocating for beaches to stay open.

Initially, local officials responded to criticism by doubling down, saying that they’d keep beaches open while enforcing social distancing orders. But that changed quickly.

Tampa Bay’s Domino Theory

Miami Beach and Fort Lauderdale closed their beaches. Then on March 18, Tampa announced the closure of several beaches.

The chain reaction had begun: That same day, Clearwater officials, facing backlash after photos and video of packed beaches circulated, voted to close the city’s beaches — but not until after the following weekend. Clearwater Beach would close for two weeks starting at 6:01 a.m. on March 20.

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Clearwater Beach didn’t even stay open that long. Soon the Pinellas County Commission voted unanimously to close all of the county’s beaches through April 6, a deadline that has since been extended.

When closed doesn’t mean closed

Not everyone obeyed the beach closures, even after DeSantis’ statewide shutdown order.

In Pasco County, beachgoers ignored “closed until further notice” signs to sunbathe and wade into the water. In Pinellas, hordes packed Gandy Beach, leaving little distance and lots of litter. Gualtieri called it a “disaster.”

Later in April, the Pinellas sheriff advocated for keeping beaches closed, and though some officials acknowledged that the beaches weren’t completely empty. The combination of closures and stay-at-home orders seemed to be effective.

Just a few days after that, on April 17, DeSantis gave the green light for some beaches to reopen.

The governor convened his Re-Open Florida Task Force, a group of business leaders, top lobbyists and politicians, to come up with recommendations for reopening the state after DeSantis’ shutdown order expires on Thursday.

"We have flattened the curve,” the governor said during the task force’s second meeting last week, saying Florida’s hospitals did not see the anticipated crush of COVID-19 patients.

Then Monday in Tampa, the governor said a quick restart of Florida’s economy is unlikely. Health experts say Florida must continue to ramp up testing before it can make these kinds of decisions.

It’s not just Florida’s beaches

Florida isn’t the only state facing complicated decisions about when and how to open beaches during the pandemic.

In early April, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp’s stay-at-home order simultaneously forced local governments to reopen beaches, a move that local officials blasted.

Crowds this past weekend packed reopening beaches in Mississippi and Texas, and Fourth of July-sized crowds flocked to the shore in California, where some beaches had just reopened.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom decried the lack of social distancing being practiced at his state’s beaches.

“This virus doesn’t take the weekends off,” he said. "This virus doesn’t go home because it’s a beautiful, sunny day along our coast.”

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