Sheriff Says To Expect 'Crazy Beach Weekend' With Capacity Crowds

D'Ann Lawrence White

PINELLAS COUNTY, FL — Go early or be prepared to be turned away from Pinellas County beaches. That's the message Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri delivered to Memorial Day weekend beach goers.

During a news conference Friday, Gualtieri said sheriff's deputies and police officers will be out in force at beaches, beach access points, beach parking lots, on the causeways, on the bridges to the barrier islands and along Gulf Boulevard patrolling Pinellas County's 35 miles of beaches stretching from Fred Howard Park in Tarpon Springs to the north to Fort De Soto Park in south Pinellas.

"We'll have about 300 law enforcement officers out here on the beaches as we have had the last couple of weeks," he said. "This is an unprecedented effort. It's the first time we've had this kind of a presence."

Memorial Day weekend is traditionally a busy beach weekend, the sheriff said. This weekend, however, he expects larger crowds than usual as people who've been cooped up at home during the coronavirus pandemic seek normalcy.

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And it's not just residents who are expected to head to the beach this weekend. Pinellas County commissioners gave approval for property owners to resume taking reservations for vacation rentals this week. Hotels are reporting 90 to 100 percent occupancy rates, up from 15 to 20 percent a couple of weekends ago.

"It's going to be one of those crazy beach weekends, and that's OK as long as everybody understands that it's not just business as usual," Gualtieri said.

Law enforcement will strictly monitor the beaches to ensure everyone is complying with the 6-foot social distancing guidelines and gathering in groups no larger than 10 people.

"Beaches are open, but they're not freely open. Everybody can't just cram in and do what people normally do on Memorial Day or the Fourth of July or any other great weekend in the summer on Pinellas beaches," he said. "We have capacity limits and density limits, and the reason for them is we want people to stay healthy and stay safe."

As Pinellas County beaches reach capacity, he said law enforcement officers will redirect beach goers to the next nearest open beach.

"We ask them to work with us. We want to be able to redirect them to open sand, so they can get out and have a good time. However, there may come a time when beach goers will have to be turned away," Gualtieri said.

He anticipates that Clearwater Beach will quickly reach capacity each of the three weekend days followed by Honeymoon Island where the state has limited the capacity to 4,500 people.

"Clearwater Beach is going to get full, and we're to have to turn people away," Gualtieri said. "The best thing you can do is come early. If you don't, don't be surprised if you get turned away."

Dunedin Causeway beach, St. Pete Beach, Pass-A-Grille, Treasure Island and Sunset Beach are also expected to reach capacity as they did last weekend, Gualtieri said.

He said beach goers can do themselves and law enforcement a favor if they check the sheriff's online Beach Capacity Dashboard before heading out. The dashboard lists all Pinellas beaches, access points, parking lots, bridges and causeways and designates them green (still open), yellow (near capacity) and red (at capacity and closed).

The dashboard went live at 1 p.m. Friday and will be active from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday through Monday.

"People can look at it. If it's in the red status, don't go there," Gualtieri said.

The dashboard will be operated from the sheriff's mobile command unit with law enforcement officers calling in updates every half hour.

"It's personnel intensive and that's why it works," he said. "It's very rich and very timely."

Since launching the dashboard on Mother's Day weekend, it has been viewed 200,000 times. Last Saturday, 28,000 people checked the dashboard.

"That's fantastic," Gualtieri said. "It means people are using it and helping themselves."

Gualtieri added that the intent of the heavy law enforcement presence isn't to arrest or cite people violating the coronavirus restrictions.

"We haven't done that the last two weeks (since the beaches reopened)," he said. "There have been a couple of normal incidents when crowds became disorderly but the absolute majority is cooperative and complying. We have not had any problems."

He said the main reason for the enforcement officers presence is to ensure that beach goers behave in a way that keeps them and those around them safe.

"All it takes is one person sneezing or coughing, even if you're outside," he said. "If we look at the results (number of positive coronavirus cases) in a week or two weeks and see a big spike, we'll have to start shutting things down again. We don't want to do that."

So far, he said, Pinellas County is maintaining a steady 15 to 17 new cases per day.

"We don't want to see the number of new cases go up," he said.

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This article originally appeared on the Clearwater Patch