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Pinellas beaches will be open for July 4 holiday, but officials expect self policing

County officials feared closing 35 miles of beaches would congest indoor spaces, riskier for spreading coronavirus.

Mayor Carlos Gimenez blamed rising COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations when he closed Miami-Dade County beaches through the July 4 holiday weekend. Then a string of municipalities in South Florida, from Vero Beach to Broward County, did the same.

But public beaches along Pinellas County’s 35 miles of sand will remain open this weekend for what’s expected to be a busy holiday. In discussions this week, local officials worried that closing the outdoor spaces would only divert crowds to more susceptible congregating points indoors, like restaurants, as coronavirus infections continue to rise in the Tampa Bay area.

“Even within the hotels, they’re having a hard time with crowds in terms of trying to get them to spread out, practice social distancing within the hotels and out on the pool decks. So the beach becomes a relief valve for people to be able to spread out and not be contained so much,” county administrator Barry Burton told the County Commission on Tuesday.

Related: Florida adds more than 10,000 coronavirus cases as deaths hit May-level high

When Pinellas reopened the beaches on May 4, following a six-week closure to stem the spread of the virus, 300 law enforcement officers were deployed to monitor the sands and enforce what were then legally mandated social distancing requirements. Several commissioners on Tuesday suggested a similar management plan be executed for the holiday weekend.

But Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said that deployment, which was in force for three weeks, was a “herculean effort” that would not be as effective, now that hotels are filling back up with visitors.

“The only reason why it worked was because we were able to relocate them to other areas,” Gualtieri said of officers breaking up crowds on beaches. “But when you got the number of people in hotels and you start pushing people away, all you’re going to do is push them into the pools and pool decks and hotels.”

On Saturday, hotel occupancies in Pinellas County hit 72 percent, down 17 percent from the same day last year, according to Visit St. Pete/Clearwater.

Disease experts say the outdoors poses fewer risks for transmission of the coronavirus than indoors, as long as people remain at least six feet apart.

“If I’m inside, especially in a badly ventilated room, even if I wear a mask, there are aerosols that will stay in the air,” said Dr. Peter Jüni, an epidemiologist at the University of Toronto and St. Michael’s Hospital. “If you’re outside, they are blown away — that’s the good news.”

But until a vaccine is available, any social activity will come with some risk, making staying home the wiser option, Jüni said. If people choose to go to the beach, social distancing from strangers is essential to lowering potential spread, said Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security.

“The risk of transmission at an outdoor setting like a beach while social distancing is very low if people are actually social distancing,” Adalja said.

The current stage of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ phased reopening of the state’s economy limits restaurants to 50 percent capacity. Last week, state officials banned bars that derive more than 50 percent of sales from alcohol from serving indoors, after being allowed to reopen on June 5.

And as of June 24, Pinellas County requires people to wear face masks while inside indoor establishments. Restaurant customers can remove their face coverings while dining or consuming a beverage when seated and social distancing.

But when it comes to beaches, social distancing is recommended, not mandated, by local or state order.

There will be about four times more officers than normal patrolling Clearwater Beach through the weekend, but Clearwater Police Chief Dan Slaughter said that is typical staffing for the July 4 holiday.

Slaughter said a team of officers are also monitoring restaurants to ensure capacity limits are being followed and that bars are not operating outside of state restrictions.

Like Gualtieri, Slaughter said closing beaches would have presented more challenges for managing crowds in other places, like restaurants and hotels.

“I don’t think it would solve any problems, because you take the beach out of the equation then I have everybody walking up and down Beach Walk. You still have bars and restaurants and hotels, it doesn’t take everything away,” Slaughter said.

Slaughter said it comes down to personal responsibility, with a need for residents to voluntarily social distance while out on the beaches and to consider wearing masks, even outdoors.

“We’re just asking for the public’s patience and cooperation and to show respect to your fellow citizen,” Slaughter said. “Even though you may not believe masks are important, if it makes someone around you comfortable, it’s the right thing to do.”

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