Pinellas County beaches will come under scrutiny Monday when barricades come down and visitors return to splash in water for the first time in five weeks.
But visitors will see a “huge presence of deputies” and police officers up and down the coast to make make sure large crowds don’t lead to accusations that opening beaches worsened a public health crisis, Sheriff Bob Gualtieri told the Tampa Bay Times.
“This has never been done before,” the sheriff said. “This is unprecedented. We have never done anything of this magnitude before.”
In addition to the deputies already assigned to beach towns, another 250 will be devoted to crowd control and traffic, and one will be stationed at every beach access point, the sheriff said. In addition to deputies on the water, at parking lots and in a helicopter, 30 will patrol the sand on all-terrain vehicles and dozens more will be on causeways from Fred Howard Park in Tarpon Springs to Fort De Soto. Gualtieri said he will also have 11 deputies at Honeymoon Island on Monday.
Officials 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. Gualtieri and Clearwater Police Chief Dan Slaughter said law enforcement will work to prevent that spectacle.
“Under no circumstance will we have a repeat of what happened in Clearwater Beach,” Gualtieri said.
When visitors approach beaches, message boards and signs will display rules about social distancing.
Slaughter said messaging is the key to informing visitors, and he hopes they obey the rules. Other measures in Clearwater include ambassadors telling people about the requirements as they approach access points. Slaughter said he doesn’t expect a free-for-all atmosphere to take over. Officers will patrol the sand and warn people about rule violations, he said.
“We will have plenty of officers deployed,” the chief said. “They will engage people.”
The county ordered 1,000 signs to display at entrances, 215 access points and on the sand telling visitors to maintain a 6-foot distance from one another and to not congregate in groups of more than 10.
To ensure a coordinated approach, the county has asked municipal leaders to remove beach closure signs and barricades and install the new signs late Sunday and into Monday, county administrator Barry Burton said Wednesday.
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. The Pinellas County Commission voted 6-1 on Tuesday to lift the closure ban. County administrator Barry Burton recommended the opening after he asked municipal leaders for suggestions on how to gradually reopen Pinellas County.
Gualtieri said he committed to county commissioners on Tuesday and municipal leaders on Thursday that wants to make the reopening a success so residents can enjoy the sun, saltwater and sand. Among the extra deputies, 32 will be in St. Pete Beach, 19 in Treasure Island and six at Gandy Beach, he said.
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They will work until 8 p.m. each night to make sure people keep enough distance between each other. Gualtieri offered a tip: If six people come together, they should stay together on the beach and keep 6 feet away from others.
The sheriff said he cannot predict crowd sizes, but officials are prepared to restrict or shift access to other points if crowds swell in certain areas. He also expects lots of visitors through Mother’s Day on May 10, and said visitors must follow the rules.
“They’re not going to be open without restrictions or some regulations,” Gualtieri said.
As the days grew under the safer-at-home orders, local complaints intensified as beaches opened in other parts of Florida. Slaughter said he expected more people to defy the orders, but found the opposite: Residents alerted police to problems when people gathered.
“The citizens have been well informed that there’s an emergency,” Slaughter said. “The general public is expecting their peers to follow the rules.”
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