Closing time? Clearwater Beach faces limited drinking hours

The City Council will vote Thursday whether to pull sales cutoff from 3 a.m. to 1 a.m. as calls for service to police remain an issue. The change would not apply to the mainland.
Traffic, including a Jolly Trolley, moves north on Mandalay Avenue on Wednesday, Sept. 2, 2020, on Clearwater Beach.
Traffic, including a Jolly Trolley, moves north on Mandalay Avenue on Wednesday, Sept. 2, 2020, on Clearwater Beach. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Jan. 19, 2021|Updated Jan. 19, 2021

CLEARWATER — Before the coronavirus pandemic pushed more locals and day-trippers to find an outlet on Clearwater Beach in 2020, Police Chief Dan Slaughter was already noticing a trend.

Between August 2017 and September 2020, calls for service on Clearwater Beach stayed flat in the first few hours after midnight, while reports in the rest of the city would significantly taper off. Police responded to more fights on the beach than the mainland east of Keene Road, a geographic area more than double in size.

With Clearwater Beach being the city’s main economic driver, earning titles as one of the country’s top beaches in part for its family-friendly atmosphere, Slaughter foresees a problem.

“I’m concerned about the long-game here and what Clearwater Beach will look like in five to 10 years if this alcohol atmosphere expands,” Slaughter told the city council at a Tuesday work session.

In light of the volume of post-midnight disturbances on Clearwater Beach, the city council is considering limiting the hours that bars can sell alcohol on the island. The council will vote on Thursday on a staff recommendation to shift the cutoff time to 1 a.m. from 3 a.m., which is Pinellas County’s limit.

The change would only apply to Clearwater Beach, Sand Key and Island Estates — not the mainland city. There are currently 13 beach establishments that sell alcohol after 1 a.m., Slaughter said.

“You do not want to lose the goose, you don’t cut down the money tree, that’s what’s concerning to me is I think we’re losing that family friendly atmosphere,” Mayor Frank Hibbard said.

“This is getting the message across that it’s not going to be tolerated and we’re not going to let these particular businesses screw up the beach,” Hibbard said. “At least I’m not, and if we have to take action we will.”

Council members discussed the possibility of giving bar owners a three-month window to resolve the problems themselves through hiring more security, training bartenders on serving limits and other tactics.

Council member David Allbritton said after the grace period, the city could pursue revoking businesses’ alcohol licenses if they continue to be problematic. Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri also warned last month that officers will cite and fine businesses that continue to violate the county’s social distancing and mask mandate for coronavirus precautions.

“We’re going through some hard times anyway with COVID and I don’t want to put any more restrictions on our businesses,” Allbritton said.

City Manager Bill Horne said he and Slaughter met with a group of about 20 beach business owners last week to talk about the problem. He said he was encouraged by some, who asked the city to give them a chance to fix the issues themselves.

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Officials expect to hear from business owners during the discussion at Thursday’s meeting.

Council member Hoyt Hamilton, whose family owns the Palm Pavilion Beachside Grill & Bar that closes at 10 p.m., said Clearwater Beach has a unique dynamic that other entertainment districts in the state don’t. Beside the bars are condos, hotels and four-star resorts that present a need for balance.

“We’re trying to protect the brand versus we don’t want to put people out of business, so it’s a very deliberate balance and it’s not as clear cut as the bar owners think it is and it’s not as clear cut as some of the homeowners out there think it is,” Hamilton said.