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PINELLAS COUNTY, FL — Following a lengthy meeting with extensive public comment, the Pinellas County Commission voted 6-1 to reopen the county's public beaches on Monday at 7 a.m.
Commissioner Ken Welch cast the dissenting vote, favoring a phased approach beginning with an exercise-only option.
Rather than modeling other counties that have opted to reopen with limited hours or for exercise only, commissioners agreed to an all-or-none approach at the urging of Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri.
Private beaches, he said, have remained open throughout the coronavirus closures. He told commissioners it would be impossible for his deputies and the municipalities' police departments to enforce an exercise-only option when they can't be sure where the public beach ends and the private one begins.
Gualtieri assured commissioners that the sheriff's office and police departments have the manpower to enforce social-distancing and minimal group guidelines.
Prior to taking a vote, the commissioners spoke extensively about the ramifications of reopening the beaches including the likelihood that people will ignore the guidelines and host beach bashes.
Commission Vice Chairman Dave Eggers said he didn't expect any situations to come along that law enforcement could not handle.
"If we do open up, I think the sheriff will be quick to tell us if we’re having trouble on the weekends," he said.
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These gatherings are already taking place along the Courtney Campbell Causeway, which isn't specified as a public beach. Therefore, the causeway has attracted droves of residents eager to get out of their homes and get some sun, said Gualtieri.
"People are taking food to parks and beaches now," he said. "It’s going on now. I don’t think it'll be any different."
He said the impatience among residents is growing.
"We’re seeing a lot of pushback and people just saying 'no' (when law enforcement tells them to leave)," said Gualtieri. "And I don’t want to have to do something about it. It's a no-win situation, so we’re just not engaging. Let's open it up and let us handle it in a regulated way."
Commissioners explored various options to limit beach crowds including allowing only Pinellas County residents to use the beaches and activating the use of the hurricane evacuation passes used for Pinellas County residents to be readmitted to the barrier islands following a hurricane evacuation.
This would give priorty to Pinellas "over people from New York and Tampa," said Commissioner Janet Long.
"I feel we’re rushing," said caller Denise Fougere. She suggested limiting Tampa visitors crossing over the bridges into Pinellas County to enjoy the Pinellas County beaches. "Tampa is a hotbed, and they'll be bringing the virus here," she said.
Gualtieri said both options are impractical. The county has only distributed 30,000 hurricane evacuation passes while the population on the barrier islands is more than 125,000.
"People would get really frustrated because they don't have a pass and it would cause huge backups on the causeway," he said. Checking the residency of beach-goers would be equally problematic.
Commissioner Kathleen Peters originally made a motion to reopen the beaches as soon as Thursday morning.
"I live on Treasure Island and their deputies are driving down the beach every 30 minutes," Peters said. "I think the cities are already prepared."
Gualtieri agreed. "We’ve been planning it for the last 10 days," he said. "The plans are in place and I know this can be implemented appropriately in a couple of days."
Nevertheless, Eggers said the Clearwater City Council requested some lag time to prepare and put signage in place. He suggested waiting until Monday "just to make sure the beach communities are all on the same page."
Those calling in to the televised meeting were split between reopening beaches and keeping them closed.
St. Petersburg City Councilman Robert Blackmon said there are plenty of places for people to get fresh air and exercise without reopening beaches. He noted the county and city parks are still open along with the trail system.
He suggested concentrating on reopening businesses first, especially those in beach areas, so they are ready for the onslaught of beach customers.
"We’re a victim of our own success," Blackmon said, noting the low incidence of the coronavirus in Pinellas County where there's been 31 deaths, or .07 percent of the population. "If you open beaches, it would encourage visitors and drinking and partying" on the beaches because the bars and restaurants won't be open. With that scenario, law enforcement would have a difficult time enforcing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, he said.
"But the business owners have incentives to follow the rules," Blackmon said. "Right now businesses are hurting and people are struggling to put meat on the table. The last thing on their minds is going to beach."
St. Petersburg resident Peter Schorsch, editor of the online political website, "Florida Politics," said he commissioned a poll of 3,100 St. Petersburg residents and found that 56 percent were against opening beaches and pools.
"I ask you to trust the numbers," said Schorsch. "Eighty-three people died in Florida yesterday. We’re not out of the woods. The numbers are greatly unreported."
Clearwater resident Justin Potts Clearwater agreed that reopening the beaches with no restrictions would be a mistake.
"It's naïve to think there won’t be an influx of outside visitors," he said. "It's naïve to think they’re not going to quickly become crowded. I suggest a phased opening rather than an all-or-nothing approach."
"I feel it’s a little too soon," echoed Reddington Shores resident Lisa Hendrickson. "I ask that the commission just pause in their steps a moment and wait for the governor’s updated order in less than two days to give businesses time to get ready for the patrons that are going to be using the beaches."
"We have to focus on what is the priority right now," said Marilyn Turman of Clearwater. "If you open beaches and they’re not practicing social distancing, they're going back and infecting their families. We have not properly tested. There is no possible way those numbers (of those who have tested positive) are accurate."
"COVID-19 remains a highly contagious potentially deadly virus," said Clearwater Beach resident Gwen Douse. "It only takes one asymptomatic person to infect many people. Open the beaches in small steps that can be measured and observed instead of by leaps and bounds. We’re on virus time, not human time. Open in careful increments."
But that doesn't help Safety Harbor resident Faith Worley of Safety Harbor who has five antsy children under the age of 14 at home and an annual pass to Honeymoon Island that's going unused.
"We’re becoming increasingly weary with all the restrictions. My children do not understand," she told commissioners. "I implore you to consider all of the impacts to all of the families. The folks who have not complied are never going to comply. It is very unhealthy for a large family unit."
St. Petersburg nurse Gina Sharkey said she understood why the restrictions were put in place initially.
"They were necessary and I've seen the impact of patients dying in hospitals because we don’t have a vaccine, a cure," she said. "But this is going to be the new normal. This is the way we’re going to be able to live. For the mental health of people, it's important that beaches are open. Not everyone has a swimming pool. Opening beaches will greatly reduce stress on the people.
Tierra Verde resident Sharon Calvert said the continued restrictions simply don't make sense. By opening up beaches, pools and playgrounds, the county would be dispersing more people over a larger area, reducing the possibility of contact.
"It does seem ironic that we can go into Walmart or Publix in a much more confined area but I can’t get into my condo pool or take a walk on the beach," she said. "Start trusting your own constitutients. We are responsible and we take that responsibility seriously. None of us want to be sick."
"There's a difference between public opinion and science," said resident Dan Liedtke."Don’t base your decision on polling. The virus dies in less than 2 minutes in sunny, humid conditions. And with air travel down 95 percent, there's no way for all the hotels to fill up."
"You’re begging for anarchy at this point," said Clearwater resident Meagan Chapman. "People have showed you they’re not listening. They’re packing the causeway. I hope you are prepared for the backlash that’s going to happen (if beaches remain closed). It’s 35 miles of open space that should be used by the residents who live here. By taking away our rights on a continuous basis, you’re just begging for problems. It’s our beaches. Let us be responsible adults and show you we can social distance."
In addition to reopening the beaches and public beach parking lots, the commission agreed to reopen public pools including pools at community centers, YMCAs, hotels and condominium complexes provided that the number of people be less than 50 percent of the pool's capacity and that the pool managers enforce social distancing guidelines and disinfect lounge chairs and other equipment after use. Pools will reopen Thursday at 6 a.m.
Pool managers who don't have the ability to enforce the restrictions will be able to keep pools closed at their discretion.
There was also good news for hundreds of toddlers itching to get their hands on a jungle gym. The commission votes unanimously to reopen playgrounds at child care centers at 6 a.m. Thursday.
Currently, day-care centers are limited to 10 children. Day-care workers will be required to disinfect playground equipment after use.
Public playgrounds will remain closed. However, County Administrator Barry Burton reiterated that public parks are open.
"They can sit on park benches and we have no issue with a couple sitting in a shelter having lunch," he said. However, law enforcement will be on the lookout for large gatherings at park shelters.
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