Art Curatti, 56, of South Pasadena, said he didn’t know what to expect when he arrived at Pass-A-Grille Monday morning, the first day in more than six weeks that Pinellas County beaches have been open amid the coronavirus outbreak. He “just wanted to take a break” and get out of the house.
Visitors began trickling onto the sand early, carrying chairs, coolers and towels. Others rode bicycles and stopped to take pictures of beach-goers returning to the sand and water. Little kids lugged fishing poles and wagons stuffed with toys.
“We want to keep our distance for now,” Curatti said, drinking a soda while sitting in an Adirondack chair overlooking the water.
On Monday afternoon, Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said he was pleased with the community’s adherence to social-distancing requirements that came with the county’s decision to reopen access to the 35 miles of world-famous beaches, which had been closed to help stop the spread of COVID-19.
Three hundred law enforcement officers were stationed throughout the county in parking lots, at beach access points and on the sands to ensure that visitors were staying at least 6 feet apart from strangers and were not gathering in groups larger than 10.
“People are compliant, they are cooperative, they want to be here, and they want to work with us,” Gualtieri said.
As of 2 p.m. Monday, Gualtieri said Fred Howard Park in Tarpon Springs was at about 50 percent capacity, Dunedin Causeway was “thick” at 80 percent and several smaller areas, such as Belleair Beach, had quickly reached capacity. He commended visitors to Clearwater Beach, the nation’s top-ranked, for spacing out and acting responsibly.
He warned that the law enforcement presence will remain en force at least through this weekend, when he expects crowds to grow.
There had been no beach-related arrests so far on Monday, and Gualtieri said enforcement through education is the priority. Charges will be brought against violators only as a “last resort.”
“As long as we’re managing it and controlling the environment, then this is going to be successful, but overall we’re very happy with what we’re seeing in the first few hours of this,” he said.
The Pinellas County Commission voted 6-1 last week to lift the closure. County administrator Barry Burton recommended the opening after he asked municipal leaders for suggestions on how to gradually reopen Pinellas County.
Blinking message boards on the Memorial Causeway leading to Clearwater Beach on Monday warned visitors that the sand was open, “with distance.” City staffers, whom Mayor Frank Hibbard called ambassadors, were stationed throughout the island to advise visitors of the rules.
“You’re starting to see a lot more activity, but I think it’s being done in a very safe way,” Hibbard said.
The sand was busy throughout the day, but was not packed, as police officers drove their SUVs alongside blankets and umbrellas. Traffic was light on the Memorial Causeway, which can get notoriously clogged in spring and summer.
Dawn and Kevin Bowen of Hudson said the monotony of quarantine drove them to Clearwater Beach. They both were laid off in late March: she from her human resources job and he from his electrical technician job.
"We still got so tired of the house,” Dawn Bowen said.
The couple had no health concerns about coming out in public. If people respect each other’s space, those precautions can allow for normal life to continue, they said.
"We’re very concerned about it, but we’re not fearful and that’s the difference,” Kevin Bowen said. They brought chips and leftover chicken and laid down their chairs at 10 a.m. They didn’t plan to leave until their parking meter would run out at 3 p.m.
John Rezneck, 37, of Brandon, canceled appointments for his pressure washing business on Monday to visit Clearwater Beach with his girlfriend, Sabrina Hurgoi, 40.
The couple have kept occupied by exercising and playing puzzles, but they craved the beach. They had no concerns about gathering on the sand as long as people stayed 6 feet apart.
City officials encouraged beach visitors to wear masks, but few had their faces covered on Monday.
“People just need to know how to cope with this, and if you do, I think we can figure it out,” Rezneck said.
If any beach area becomes unmanageable or too crowded, Gualtieri said, officials will shut them down. By noon, deputies restricted access to parts of Pass-A-Grille because visitors were parking on side streets after the city closed 300 of 1,000 public parking spots. Gualtieri said he planned to talk to St. Pete Beach officials about the parking, stressing that he vowed the openings would not disrupt residents.
Gualtieri also cautioned the media and the public about sharing photos of crowds on beaches. A video of visitors packing Clearwater Beach went viral on March 16, prompting a flood of accusations that Pinellas elected officials were enabling a public health crisis. Gualtieri condemned the national media for replaying the same video throughout that week, even as beach crowds dissipated when spring break visitors went home.
On Monday, Gualtieri said his department shot footage from a helicopter that showed sparse crowds and proper distancing that can’t be seen on foot.
“That ground level view isn’t necessarily painting the accurate view,” Gualtieri said.
Sally Davis of Danbury, Conn., and Deanne Robinson of Lindenville, Vermont, said they arrived in the area on Jan. 1. Even under the safer-at-home order, the women said they got to enjoy the sun, pointing to their suntans.
“It’s a wonderful place to be quarantined at,” Davis said. “We’ve been enjoying the outside.” Beach-goers were keeping their distance Monday at Pass-A-Grille, they said.
“People are just happy to get a piece of Florida back,” Davis said.
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