Pinellas commissioners open beaches and pools

Pools can open on Thursday at 6 a.m. Beaches can open on Monday.
The view looking north in Pass-a-Grille in March. Pinellas County beaches have been closed since March 20.
The view looking north in Pass-a-Grille in March. Pinellas County beaches have been closed since March 20. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published April 28, 2020|Updated April 29, 2020

After a four-hour discussion, the Pinellas County Commission voted Tuesday to reopen beaches and pools, with restrictions to make sure visitors don’t gather in groups of more than 10.

Commissioners decided to separate resolutions on opening pools and beaches into two votes. The group voted unanimously to open pools on Thursday at 6 a.m. They then voted 6-1 to open beaches on Monday at 7 a.m.

The votes in a virtual public meeting came after county administrator Barry Burton asked commissioners on Friday to lift restrictions that have kept residents off the sand and out of pools for more than a month. Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said Saturday that he supported the move, because spring break crowds are gone and because medical data shows the “worst is behind” the county.

“This is a good first step,” Commission Chair Pat Gerard said during the discussion.

Commissioner Kathleen Peters said that many residents need pools for exercise and therapy, adding: “We need to give people hope that there will be normalcy. It’s time that we trust people.”

Opening the county’s 35 miles of world-famous beaches, public parking lots and pools comes after commissioners closed the beaches on March 20 to help stop the spread of COVID-19. Once visitors hit the sand, it won’t be a free-for-all atmosphere. The resolution requires visitors to maintain a 6-foot distance from one another and to not congregate in groups of more than 10.

The county will post hundreds of brightly-colored signs at beaches to warn people about the requirements.

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

Pools, including those at hotels, condominiums, apartments and commercial businesses, will open, but capacity must be reduced by 50 percent.

Several commissioners said the panel should focus first on getting people back to work. Commissioner Dave Eggers asked whether beaches should open only on weekdays in May. Others discussed hours when beaches would open and how law enforcement would monitor social distancing and large crowds.

The county’s large beaches allow people to spread out more than in other counties, Burton said. Gualtieri said he preferred that beaches open without restricted hours, because it’s not feasible to clear people at certain hours. The sheriff said he will have at least 100 deputies enforcing requirements, including in boats, all-terrain vehicles and aircraft.

“We have a plan in place to make sure we have a strong presence" at beach access points and other locations, Gualtieri said. “We have the resources, and we are prepared to enforce this.”

The openings come with warnings. 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. Burton said it’s “incumbent” on pool owners to maintain cleanliness.

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More than 30 residents lobbied commissioners on Tuesday, and more than 75 percent favored opening beaches and pools.

Burton said he made the recommendation based on medical data. The county is not at its capacity for hospital beds, and the number of positive virus tests is lower here compared to other parts of Florida, he said, adding that people were practicing social distancing once the county enacted guidelines.

“Both of these issues come down to being responsible,” Burton said about beaches and pools.

Commissioner Ken Welch said he could not support opening beaches until he sees more demographic data on people being tested for the virus.

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

Some Florida beaches have reopened, while many have not. The push to reopen had its first breakthrough two weekends ago, when Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry reopened Duval County beaches on April 17.

Also on Tuesday, Hernando County Commissioners voted to re-open all county park and beach locations, including Alfred McKethan/Pine Island Park and the Rogers Park beach area, beginning Wednesday. No organized sports, events or large gatherings will be permitted, and people must stay at least 6 feet from one another.

Pinellas 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. On Tuesday, Welch called it a “nightmare scenario” if crowds gather again.

The commission will meet again Thursday to hash out a new emergency order since the governor said he plans to announce Wednesday how the state will move forward once his order expires.

“Until the governor acts on his local order, we can’t act locally on modifying local, nonessential businesses,” Burton told commissioners.

Correction: Pinellas County Commissioners voted Tuesday to open county beaches without a requirement that beach-goers be exercising. An earlier version of this story was incorrect on that point.

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