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Pinellas boaters and beachgoers abide by the rules on a beautiful Saturday

Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, who was closely monitoring the boating scene, said boaters were behaving better this weekend than last weekend.
Boaters line up at the Gandy Boat Ramp to enjoy some social distancing on the waters of Tampa Bay on Saturday.
Boaters line up at the Gandy Boat Ramp to enjoy some social distancing on the waters of Tampa Bay on Saturday. [ LUIS SANTANA | TIMES | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published Apr. 4, 2020
Updated Apr. 4, 2020

The center consoles and jet skis plodded under the Johns Pass Bridge midday Saturday, a line forming in the Intracoastal to get out to the Gulf of Mexico. On the Gulf side of the bridge, boats speckled the landscape, an occasional sailboat mast piercing the horizon.

It was a busy day on the water. And with the sun shining, the high temperature north of 80 degrees and very little to do back on land because of closures in response to the coronavirus, why wouldn’t it be?

“Everybody’s outside,” said Angel Zambrana, 21, who was fishing at the foot of the bridge.

He and friend Austin Johns, also 21, came from Tampa to see if the fish were biting and to watch the boat traffic. They’d seen a lot of families and solo boaters, many toting fishing poles. They hadn’t seen any party boats jammed with people.

That’s what Pinellas officials were hoping for. Last weekend, after Pinellas County rolled out its safer-at-home order asking people to stay inside except for the essentials, boaters packed the waterways, tying vessels together and having blowout bashes on sandbars and Intracoastal islands. The behavior flew in the face of social distancing guidelines and orders from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to maintain 50 feet between boats and to limit capacity to 10 aboard.

Violating the boating rules is technically a second-degree misdemeanor crime, punishable by up to 60 days in jail and a $500 fine.

This weekend was set to be a referendum on the chance to stay out. Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri had marine units patrolling the water. He said Saturday that he had been prepared to enforce the rules — meaning issuing noncompliant boaters notices to appear in court and arresting the most flagrant offenders. He said another option, if the collective boating community continued to ignore the rules, would be to recommend to county commissioners to close boat ramps altogether.

Related: For recreational boaters, this weekend could be ‘the last hurrah’

But, he said, it didn’t appear he’d need to take such measures.

“Things are better today, overall," the sheriff said. He got reports from the marine deputies and the department’s helicopter crew, which flew the entire county’s coastline in the morning and afternoon.

“Much better than what we saw last weekend,” he added. "It’s busy out there, but people are making an effort.”

Boaters took to the water on Saturday.
Boaters took to the water on Saturday. [ LUIS SANTANA | TIMES | Tampa Bay Times ]

The parking lot at the Bay Pines boat ramp was crowded. Ford, Chevrolet, Dodge and Toyota pickups packed the lot, parking side to side, the poles at the ends of the trailers lining up like a slalom course.

Electronic signage reminded boaters of the distancing and gathering rules.

“There were a good number of boats, you could tell people were trying to get out of their houses,” said Vic Stephens, 50, of Seminole, who brought in his 18-footer with his son. “I think people were trying to be smart and do the right thing."

A similar electronic sign stood at the Seminole boat ramp north of downtown Clearwater, where people were forced to park their trucks and trailers in overflow lots three blocks away. The line to get in and out of the water was never shorter than three trailers on Saturday afternoon.

“Lot more people than I thought there’d be,” said Zeke Juarez, 30, of Dade City, who said he caught a couple trout.

He was by Caladesi Island State Park in the morning and only saw a handful of boats. He saw two boats tied together at one of the small islands on the Intracoastal.

“A lot of boat traffic," Juarez said.

Over at Gandy Beach, where on a day like Saturday, dozens of pickups would be backed into the mangroves on the west side of the bridge, it was eerily empty. Barricades and tape cordoned off the thin sand strip, and three Pinellas County sheriff’s deputies parked in the median, serving as a deterrent.

Pinellas County sheriff's deputies stand guard near Gandy Beach on Saturday. The beach is closed. Yet that didn't stop dozens of vehicles flocking there last weekend.
Pinellas County sheriff's deputies stand guard near Gandy Beach on Saturday. The beach is closed. Yet that didn't stop dozens of vehicles flocking there last weekend. [ LUIS SANTANA | TIMES | Tampa Bay Times ]

On the Tampa side of the bridge, though, the Gandy boat ramp was packed in the afternoon, with a line of seven boats waiting to drop into the water.

People seemed to abide by Pinellas County’s order to stay off the beaches, at least on Pass-a-Grille Beach, where all was quiet. The parking spots on the beach side of Gulf Way were all roped off, while open spots were plentiful on the east side of the street. Empty sand stretched north and south as far as one could see, uncharacteristic for a beautiful day in April. Some folks walked along the waterline, which Gualtieri has said is perfectly fine.

A group of Harley-Davidson riders waited outside the iconic Hurricane Seafood Restaurant, which was serving food and drinks to go.

Times photographer Luis Santana contributed to this report.

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