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Pinellas beaches may have to turn people away if holiday crowds get too big, sheriff says

The Pinellas County Sheriff’s Beach Capacity Dashboard will go live again on Saturday.

As Memorial Day weekend approaches, Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri warned that some of the county’s beaches may have to turn people away temporarily if crowds swell.

Gualtieri told the Pinellas County Commission on Thursday that he was pleased with last week’s beach reopening, but cautioned that a bigger test will come over the next two weekends. He reiterated that law enforcement will close access to prevent overcrowding during the COVID-19 crisis. He praised the public for maintaining social distancing on the sand.

“We’re going to have to keep an eye on beach capacity limits,” Gualtieri said. “This is something the public is going to have to understand.”

The sheriff said he worries about more hotels opening their doors for visitors. He and county administrator Barry Burton said the county plans to alert hotel operators to tell guests that beach access could be restricted — even if visitors pay $300 a night at hotels.

Related: Coronavirus: All Pinellas beaches will shut down after Friday night

To help manage crowds, the Sheriff’s Office launched an online dashboard to allow beach-goers to check crowd sizes at beaches and parking lots before they leave home. Like traffic signals, the dashboard displays green, yellow and red colors to signify if the areas are open, reaching capacity or closed. The tool will be activated on Saturday at 9 a.m. and again on Sunday. Next week, it will be live Friday through Monday.

More than 166,000 used used the dashboard last weekend, he said. It allowed the office to determine that most of the visitors came from outside the county, he said. For example, the largest amount of website traffic on Saturday came from east Hillsborough County, specifically about 13,000 users in Brandon, Gualtieri said.

Related: Worried about Pinellas beach crowds? A sheriff’s dashboard will detail crowding

“In a perfect world, it would be great to have just Pinellas County residents using beaches” during the pandemic, Commissioner Dave Eggers said, “but it’s not a perfect world.”

More than 300 deputies and police officers patrolled beaches, parking lots and hundreds of access points across the county last weekend. There were no beach-related arrests between Friday and Sunday.

As beaches reopened in Naples and closed again because of crowding last weekend, the reopening in Pinellas worked better because of partnerships between county and local officials, Gualtieri said. Several commissioners praised the sheriff for the smooth reopening.

The large presence of law enforcement cannot go on forever at the beaches, Gualtieri warned. He said he is committed to keeping the heavy presence through the Memorial Day holiday. Officials then will have to examine all available medical data to determine whether COVID-19 cases increased or decreased over the three weeks, he said.

“This is not sustainable forever,” he said. “At some point, we’ll have to take the training wheels off.”

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