Pinellas County has lifted the local mandate that beach visitors maintain social distancing amid the coronavirus pandemic, and law enforcement officers will no longer patrol the sands as they have since beach access re-opened on May 4.
The Pinellas County Commission on Thursday voted unanimously to immediately lift its legal requirement that beachgoers stay 6 feet apart from strangers and in groups no larger than 10. But like the guidance in the first phase of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ plan for re-opening businesses and public spaces, the county’s order also encourages people to voluntarily practice social distancing and wear face masks.
The order also allows hotel and motel pools to move to maximum capacities immediately, while all other pool operators can return to full capacity on June 1, as they had been ordered to operate at 50 percent capacity. Childcare facility playgrounds are also allowed to resume normal operations, while public playgrounds can reopen on June 1.
County Administrator Barry Burton said the shift from a regulatory approach to a more self-policing system is appropriate as the rate of local infections steadies. As of Thursday, Florida has now reported 53,285 cases and 2,446 deaths in the nearly three months since DeSantis announced the first positive patients. In Pinellas County, Burton said less than 2 percent of people tested had results positive for COVID-19.
“We had to get over this curve and find out where this pandemic was going, but we also have to look at the numbers and accept where is the right time to move to that new normal, to say you need to be responsible,” Burton said. “We also have to recognize the impact these closures have on our population as we get into the summer months.”
In reaching the decision to lift local restrictions, Dr. Ulyee Choe, director of the Florida Department of Health in Pinellas County, said officials considered the current infection counts, the sufficient hospital capacities and low levels of flu-like symptoms present in emergency rooms.
About 300 law enforcement officers have been patrolling the sands, beach access points and parking lots to enforce social distancing since the commission reopened public beach access on May 4 following a six-week shutdown aimed at slowing the spread of the coronavirus.
Sheriff Bob Gualtieri told the commission on Thursday he supported lifting the local restriction as the public has largely self-policed appropriately. There have been no social distancing related arrests or major incidents on the beaches during the patrol, he said.
He expects cities to maintain large signage at the beaches detailing social distancing guidelines.
“By and large the absolute majority of people are doing the right thing,” Gualtieri said. “It really doesn’t require enforcement. People want to be safe. They want to be healthy and we’re really seeing people taking it upon themselves.”
Clearwater Police Chief Dan Slaughter also said as businesses re-open, people return to work and communities begin to activate, the heightened patrol of the beach was not sustainable long-term.
“We’re starting to resume to our normal call volume, which we didn’t have when everyone was at home,” Slaughter said.
Clearwater police will still be deployed above normal levels for special events like July 4 and Labor Day weekend on Clearwater Beach, but Slaughter said the public and businesses have largely been compliant.
“We’ve found the public to be very compliant through this emergency for the most part other than businesses here and there that have stretched the limits,” Slaughter said. “I think we’re dealing with a public where 50 percent think this is no big deal and 50 percent think this is Armageddon. … People need to make their own individual decisions on what they feel is appropriate for their personal safety.”