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Coronavirus in Florida latest: fizzling fireworks, busy beaches and confusion over alcohol sales

Here’s what you need to know for Sunday, May 24.
About two dozen police officer patrolled Clearwater Beach on Saturday, May 23, 2020, in hopes of maintaining social distancing requirements among Memorial Day weekend crowds.
About two dozen police officer patrolled Clearwater Beach on Saturday, May 23, 2020, in hopes of maintaining social distancing requirements among Memorial Day weekend crowds. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published May 24, 2020

The number of coronavirus infections in Florida surpassed 50,000 on Saturday as state officials attributed 44 more deaths to COVID-19, the respiratory infection brought on by the virus.

Five of those deaths, which occurred over a 24-hour period, were in the Tampa Bay area — two in Hillsborough, two in Pinellas and one in Manatee counties.

That brings the total number of lives lost to the coronavirus in Florida to 2,312, according to data from the Florida Health Department. In the seven counties that make up the Tampa Bay area, the coronavirus lead to 324 deaths in the 12 weeks since state health officials announced the state’s first positive test results on March 1.

Roughly 46 percent of all coronavirus-related deaths in Florida have occurred in the state’s nursing homes and assisted living facilities, according to reports from the health department. Nursing homes in the Tampa Bay area have accounted for 200 deaths, with the highest concentration coming from Manatee County.

Experts and advocates agree that frequently testing all staffers and residents for the virus is the only way to prevent it from further decimating Florida’s nursing homes. Still, Gov. Ron DeSantis has stalled, saying Florida doesn’t have the resources available for a massive testing rollout.

Memorial Day weekend plus a pandemic equals busy beaches in Pinellas

Pinellas County beaches reached maximum allowed capacity by mid-afternoon on Saturday as the Memorial Day weekend got underway, local law enforcement said.

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 enforcing social distancing requirements, like limiting groups to no more than 10 and staying 6 feet apart from others.

About 20 public beach access points were closed before 11 a.m. and more than 70 were closed by 3 p.m. Bridges leading to Clearwater Beach and Honeymoon Island State Park were congested for most of the day.

A tweet linking to the agency’s online dashboard for beach capacity updates warned those planning a beach trip to get an early start or else risk being turned away by police once beaches reach their new limited capacity.

Fireworks up in the air for many Tampa Bay cities with Clearwater canceling its show

And if limiting beach capacity wasn’t enough of a summer bummer, the coronavirus pandemic has set its sights on another time-honored Tampa Bay tradition this summer: Fourth of July fireworks. Clearwater has canceled its signature show and Tampa Mayor Jane Castor all but did the same on Friday, with leaders in both cities saying the coronavirus made such events too dangerous.

The cities of Gulfport and Tarpon Springs in Pinellas County have also canceled their fireworks shows. To the south, officials in Siesta Key and Sarasota announced on Thursday their events were called off as well.

As of Friday, officials in St. Petersburg, Largo, Safety Harbor and Treasure Island had not yet decided the fates of their displays.

But Temple Terrace’s 46th annual show planned at the Temple Terrace Golf and Country Club is still scheduled to take place, according to city marketing and communications officer Laurie Hayes.

“At this point we are full speed ahead in our planning,” Hayes said.

Can cigar lounges serve booze? Governor’s order brought cloud of uncertainty

Central Cigars was eager to reopen on May 9, the first Saturday after Gov. Ron DeSantis announced that restaurants and retail stores could resume operations after a statewide shutdown at the height of the coronavirus pandemic. But then in walked St. Petersburg Police Chief Anthony Holloway, who questioned whether the cigar shop should be allowed to sell alcohol to customers under St. Petersburg’s and Pinellas County’s interpretation of the governor’s order.

The governor’s phased reopening from the shutdown in response to the coronavirus still prohibits bars — businesses that make most of their revenue from alcohol sales — from selling alcohol to customers for consumption on site.

Ultimately, state officials clarified that cigar lounges are allowed to sell alcohol and operate all other facets of their business.

But for public officials, it was the latest example of the challenges they face interpreting and enforcing orders from Tallahassee.

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