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  1. Pinellas

Tampa Bay visitors enjoy open beaches in wake of Red Tide

People walk on the beach at Pass-A-Grille on Friday. (MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times)
People walk on the beach at Pass-A-Grille on Friday. (MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times)
Published Dec. 7, 2018

ST. PETE BEACH — A Red Tide hangover has kept some people away from Pinellas County's beaches, but those who make the trip are finding near-perfect conditions.

Jack McGregor and Cathy Castillo of Irvine, Calif., kicked back in orange Adirondack chairs in Pass-a-Grille on Friday, listening to a nearby guitarist as they gazed out at the Gulf. The 75-degree weather felt even warmer with the clear skies and sun. McGregor, 53, rolled up his pants and shed his shirt, soaking up the warmth.

"We started reading about Red Tide and it sounds really bad, but then we got here and you can't even tell," McGregor said. "We're super satisfied with this trip."

Red Tide has mostly stayed away from Pinellas the past several weeks, hitting other areas along the west coast instead.

The two booked the long-weekend trip after finding stellar deals on flights (less than $300 total for the two of them roundtrip) and hotels ($60 per night along the beach). Such a good deal is hard to pass up, even with reports of Red Tide still circulating online.

"If we were planning a longer trip, we might have stayed away," McGregor said.

But once they got here, Castillo, 48, said the two couldn't stop talking about what a great time of year it was to visit.

Parking is easy, restaurants have open tables, there's no wait at the bar.

That's good for visitors, but not so good for the businesses. Even though Red Tide's hold on Pinellas subsided — the worst months here were August through October — business are still feeling its impact.

Cheryl and Gary Starr live just up the road in a condo tower along the water. They've noticed the typically-full parking lots they can spy from their windows are mostly open this year.

"It used to be you had to get here by 9:30 to get a spot, but it's wide open, even when it's sunny and clear," said Gary Starr, 60.

The few weeks before the holidays are usually slow, restaurant managers said, but this year is particularly quiet.

"It's not even that Red Tide's been bad here, it's more that people are scared," said Sean Killie, manager of the Toasted Monkey. "If you're not from here, you can't just pop down here and see what it's like. Why would you risk it?"

Killie understands the apprehension holding people back, but still, he said, it's frustrating. Especially when conditions are so good at the moment.

"The beaches are pretty clear, it's good weather and people are having a good time," Killie said.

Around Thanksgiving, the wind and waves pushed Red Tide south, bringing relief to Pinellas beaches.

Still, there's nothing to stop the bloom — and the piles of dead marine life that accompany it — from coming back this way. Just south of Tampa Bay, Red Tide hit Bradenton hard earlier this month, washing hundreds of dead fish on shore.

Reports like that are enough to keep some tourists home.

"Just the perception, just the idea of Red Tide, it's enough," Hurricane Seafood Restaurant manager Russ Haynes said.

Reports in other states don't help that, said Terry Speer, 66. Speer and her husband, Doug, recently moved to St. Pete Beach from Chicago, but the two occasionally go back north and still follow Chicago news. The accounts they hear of Red Tide aren't specific at all, the couple said. Many news channels treat Florida's west coast as one long region, not always distinguishing between which parts are clear and which are hit harder.

"For northerners who are considering coming, it's going to scare them off," Speer said.

Those who do make the trip, though, are enjoying the easy access and laid-back vibe that comes with fewer visitors.

Rylee Velez, 19, and Alex Maslar, 21, came to St. Pete Beach from Cleveland for a long weekend. It was snowing so hard when they left Thursday, they could barely see through the windows at the airport.

But by noon Friday, they ditched their jackets and donned their shorts to grab some lunch at the Toasted Monkey.

"The water looks calm and the weather is still nice," Velez said.

Jenni Huffman, 38, has worked as a bartender at the Toasted Monkey for about six years. She said conditions like this — quiet, but not a ghost town — were her favorite time to visit when she still lived in Indiana.

"You can park, you can rent things, you can go to dinner," Huffman said. "And it's great, non-humid weather before the tourists all get here and it gets crazy."

Contact Caitlin Johnston at cjohnston@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8779. Follow @cljohnst.

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