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As Tampa Bay cops brace for weekend crowds, enforcement strategy is education first

In the face of any violations, local law enforcement said that making arrests will be the last resort.
Local law enforcement is looking toward this weekend as the true test of whether beaches and businesses can keep operating while still maintaining social distancing guidelines.
Local law enforcement is looking toward this weekend as the true test of whether beaches and businesses can keep operating while still maintaining social distancing guidelines. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]
Published May 7, 2020

As Tampa Bay partially reopened this week, police officers and sheriff’s deputies across the region have largely lauded residents and business owners for cooperating with the latest public health orders.

But they’re looking toward this weekend as the true test of whether beaches and businesses can keep operating while still maintaining social distancing guidelines. And leaders from some of Tampa Bay’s largest law enforcement agencies said they’re ready to enforce the rules — but only if education and warnings don’t work first.

“I would really seriously characterize it as ‘They’re going to have to beg for a problem,’" Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said.

About 300 deputies from Gualtieri’s agency have been patrolling beaches this week and will continue at least through the weekend, the sheriff said. With the help of the agency helicopter, they’re keeping an eye out for groups larger than 10 people or sitting closer than 6 feet apart.

But the key to maintaining safe distancing, the sheriff said, is density. If there are too many people on the beach, there won’t be enough room to spread out. The state agreed to increase capacity at Honeymoon Island from 3,000 to 4,500 people this weekend, he said, which should help. Gualtieri said he’s prepared to cut off access to overcrowded beaches and redirect beachgoers to less crowded spots.

Related: RELATED: Pinellas beach opening a ‘successful day,’ sheriff says

Both he and Clearwater police Chief Dan Slaughter, whose officers are monitoring Clearwater Beach, said they will be posting information on social media about beach capacity so that people can make informed decisions before heading out for the day.

In the face of any violations, the sheriff and chief said that making arrests will be the last resort. They’ll first educate people on the rules, then ask them to voluntarily comply. So far, neither agency has arrested anyone.

“It will make me extremely happy if I can tell you two months from now that we haven’t had to do one at all," Slaughter said.

Police departments are also keeping an eye on businesses as they reopen with limited capacity. In Tampa, some restaurants have expanded outdoor seating into parking lots and onto streets shut down as part of Mayor Jane Castor’s “Lift Up Local Economic Recovery Plan."

Related: RELATED: Joy and fear as Tampa Bay begins lifting coronavirus restrictions

Tampa Police Chief Brian Dugan said his office will be monitoring popular spots such as Ybor City, Hyde Park and Franklin Street downtown. They’ll also respond to complaints from the public. But, like Slaughter and Gualtieri, Dugan said enforcement will start with education and warnings.

“We’re not interested in taking anybody to jail," he said.

Business owners and patrons have so far been compliant, he said, even during Cinco de Mayo on Tuesday. One business, the Green Lemon on S Howard Avenue, closed its doors early Tuesday night after being overwhelmed with patrons, but it was the restaurant’s decision, not any kind of enforcement by police, Dugan said.

Related: RELATED: I ate at a restaurant for the first time since March. We’re a long way from normal.

St. Petersburg police spokeswoman Yolanda Fernandez echoed that sentiment, saying Tuesday’s holiday was less busy than anticipated.

City firefighters have spent the week fanning out to businesses to make sure they know the rules and are set up to safely serve customers, Fernandez said. Police officers also passed out flyers explaining Gov. Ron DeSantis’ latest emergency order to businesses in the city’s popular Central Avenue and Beach Drive corridors.

If any businesses aren’t complying with the rules, Fernandez said that code enforcement will respond first. Police will only respond if the violation persists.

Countywide in Pinellas, Gualtieri said his agency is still operating a tip line for people to call in complaints about non-compliant businesses. Lately, though, call takers are getting fewer tips and more calls with questions about the latest rules. Deputies will investigate any complaints, with arrests a last resort.

“It’s not some hardline or hardcore approach," he said.

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