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Memorial Day weekend plus a pandemic equals busy beaches in Pinellas

The county reached an “unprecedented level of closures” Saturday as about 300 law enforcement officers patrolled the sands.

Most beaches in Pinellas County reached capacity by mid-afternoon Saturday, the start of Memorial Day weekend, forcing law enforcement to turn away some beachgoers who got a later start.

About 20 public beach access points were closed before 11 a.m. Just after lunchtime, the Sheriff’s Office announced that the county was reaching an “unprecedented level of closures" as about 300 law enforcement officers patrolled the sands from St. Petersburg to Tarpon Springs.

Law enforcement officers patrol Clearwater Beach Saturday. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

“If you’re not on the beaches yet, get an earlier start tomorrow," read a tweet linking to the agency’s online dashboard for beach capacity updates. It showed more than 70 access points closed by 3 p.m. and congestion most of the day on bridges leading to Clearwater Beach and Honeymoon Island State Park in Dunedin.

Deputies blocked entrances of busy parking lots along Gulf Boulevard in south Pinellas, causing lines of cars to circle neighborhood streets for space. “Beach full,” signs in front of sheriff’s cruisers read. “No admittance at this time.”

There were no arrests, citations or major incidents on the beaches as of 4 p.m., said Jennifer Crockett, head of communications for the Sheriff’s Office. “Things filled up faster today than we have ever seen before,” she added. “But people have been pretty cooperative."

Many on the beaches said they felt safe despite large crowds and the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Some kept to themselves and said social-distancing stayed top-of-mind. Others gathered in large groups, leaned against beach bars and unfolded towels and chairs nearby strangers where open sand was hard to find.

“It’s not always going to be perfectly 6 feet between people, but I feel like people are trying to keep their space," said 21-year-old Yasmina Hernandez from a towel on Sunset Beach. “It’s everyone’s individual choice whether they come out or not.”

Beach goers are seen along Clearwater Beach Saturday. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

A bit south, Michael Montoya, 65, was sitting in a beach chair, enjoying the sunshine with his toes in the sand. He left his home in Tampa early to make sure he got a spot several feet from anyone else.

“Social distancing is the ticket,” he said. “I’ve been in the house for months and had to get out for some fresh air ... But I’m not socializing or sitting close to people."

Sharon Servente, 75, of Brooksville, had a similar take. Her daughter rents the same condo each Memorial Day weekend and she didn’t see the trip as a big risk, being that they’re spending most of their time outdoors.

“It’s fresh air and we’re out in the water,” said Connie Urso from beneath an umbrella down the beach. She owns a condo nearby and invited family to stay after growing antsy in quarantine.

Urso, 58, said most people respected their space Saturday. But she worries about other kids wanting to play with her grandchildren when they arrive Sunday, and having to tell them no.

Further north, at Madeira Beach, Kristina Schoen, 33, sunbathed with her fiancé Jared Hendry. The Tampa couple arrived at the beach early, about 9:30 a.m. She noticed a heavy police presence right away as officers patrolled by foot, vehicle and ATV.

Police presence was bigger than normal in Clearwater, too, where about two dozen officers were patrolling beaches. That’s about double normal staffing, said Clearwater police spokesman Rob Shaw.

The northern and southern tips of Clearwater Beach were more crowded than the center, likely because of the location of hotels. So officers tried to funnel visitors to other parts of the beach that were less busy, like near Pier 60.

Beach goers are seen along Clearwater Beach Saturday. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

Police Chief Dan Slaughter said beachgoers were more tolerant of police than usual. “I can’t say I’ve ever policed a more compliant public in my life,” he added. Still, he has concerns about what the rest of the weekend will look like, and expects the beach to quickly reach capacity.

In the afternoon, a group of eight teens sat in the shade of a palm tree near the pier. They wanted to get out of the house, said 15-year-old Augie Mojica, but still tried to keep their distance from others.

“Everybody is acting like it’s back to normal, but it’s really not,” said 15-year-old Andrew Duncan of Dunedin. He said no one seems to care as much about the precautions recommended by health officials anymore.

Tiffany Mathers, 44, felt the same way as she bopped her head to music at Madeira Beach about 1 p.m. She lives across the street and was stunned to see the beach so busy when she walked over in the morning.

“I have never seen this many umbrellas,” she said. “This is not social-distancing at all. There’s way too many people."

Most of those she met on the beach came from out of town, Mathers said. It felt awkward to ask people to move further away from her when they set up tents and chairs nearby. She kept thinking about the mask in her bag, wondering if she should put it on.

“I don’t want to be ugly to visitors,” she said. “But I feel like we’ve been educated for too long about social-distancing for it to be this way.”

Corey VanDerKellen and Sarah Moczisko, fiancés from Chicago, visited Clearwater Beach in the afternoon. It took some time to find parking, but they finally secured a spot on Papaya Street and stepped into the heat wearing masks.

It seemed like the right thing to do to protect themselves and others, said Moczisko. They didn’t want to miss a chance to see the waves and the birds.

Pier 60 is seen as beach goers enjoy Clearwater Beach Saturday. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

“I’m not going to change my life forever,” VanDerKellen said. “You have to keep carrying on. You have to enjoy the little things."

On the other side of the bay, Tampa’s parks were quieter. As temperatures reached 90 Saturday afternoon, Bayshore Boulevard was relatively empty compared to other days. A few people enjoyed the shade along Channel Drive on Davis Islands. Curtis Hixon Park was a popular spot for graduation portraits but had only a spattering of activity.

There were more signs of the holiday weekend on the Hillsborough River, as crowded boats with inflatable floats sticking out the back passed by.

Louis and Marlena Leary lounged on one of the benches outside the Glazer Children’s Museum. They had been told to leave the same spot a couple of weeks ago, not having realized it was part of the park. It had been frustrating trying to find someplace to enjoy the outdoors before the parks reopened.They enjoyed their time in the sun on Saturday, but had intentionally stayed away from the beaches this holiday weekend.

“This weekend, no,” Marlena said. “We like something like this, where we can have space. We’ll probably stay away from anything too crowded for a while.”

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