CLEARWATER – The public beaches in Pinellas County will reopen Monday morning with safe-distancing rules in effect while public swimming pools and daycare center playgrounds will reopen Thursday.
The Pinellas County Commission also extended the county’s “state of emergency” for another week (to May 8) at its Tuesday morning meeting.
After much discussion and numerous public comments, the Commission voted 6 to 1 to open the public beaches on Monday at 7 a.m.
Commissioner Ken Welsh voted against the resolution saying he felt it is too early and there has not been enough testing for the virus in the county.
Meanwhile, the Marina pier and boardwalk in Safety Harbor will remain closed as city officials are waiting to see what Governor Ron DeSantis announces Wednesday. The next meeting of the Safety Harbor Commission is Monday.
The Commission closed the public beaches on March 20 as a safe guard against spreading the COVID-19 virus.
Public swimming pools and playgrounds were also closed in March. But after nearly five weeks of closure, Commissioners feel residents are willing to comply with safe-distancing practices that slow the spread of the disease.
In a unanimous vote, Commissions agreed that public pools such as community pools, hotel pools, condo pools and association pools can reopen at 6 a.m. Thursday but must stay at no more than 50 percent capacity and follow all CDC guidelines, including cleaning protocol.
Daycare playgrounds can open but with limits on how many children can be on the playground at one time. Public playgrounds will remain closed.
On the beaches, social distancing guidelines of 6 feet of separation will be in effect. Pinellas County deputies will be patrolling the beaches to make sure people are following guidelines.
Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said the county has effectively flattened the curve of new coronavirus cases and most residents are following safe-distance guidelines. He added that with college spring break over, there won’t be as many people gathering on the beaches.
He said that opening up the 35 miles of beachfront would spread out the beach goers instead of bottling them up in smaller areas such as what has been happening along the Courtney-Campbell Causeway and Edgewater Drive recently.
He made a strong pitch for opening the beaches, noting that more than 100 deputies will be stationed from north of Clearwater Beach down to Ft. De Soto.
Gualtieri said there will be new signs at every beach access point warning of the restrictions He said that if people weren’t complying there would be warnings first and arrests only as a last resort.
More than 650 residents were watching the meeting this morning via Zoom and YouTube, and there were many who spoke passionately about keeping the beaches closed while others spoke just as passionately about opening them up.
Commission Chair Pat Gerard had said on Friday that the Commission would take a “measured data-driven approach” to deciding on opening the beaches.
Pinellas County Administrator Barry Burton opened the meeting, observing there has been a lot of public frustration over being denied access to the public beaches and pools. He said data indicates that the rate of infections is slowing, the hospitals have plenty of capacity, and the city governments in Pinellas are in agreement.
The data indicates that the county has averaged about 15 new cases a day for the past 20 days, which includes the cases at nursing homes. Burton said the county’s positive COVID-19 tests has been about 5 percent which is lower than the statewide average of 10 percent.
Among those calling in with public comments was a nurse from Clearwater who urged the Commissioners to keep the beaches closed for health and safety reasons, while a Safety Harbor mother of five children, all under 18, made the case for opening up the beaches.
One caller cited a poll conducted Monday by St. Pete Polls that found 37 percent of residents surveyed were in favor of opening beaches and pools while 56 percent opposed the measure with eight percent undecided.
The latest report from the Florida Department of Health finds Pinellas County has totaled 709 positive cases of the virus with 31 deaths. The state of Florida has 32,800 cases with 1,171 deaths.
You can watch a replay of the four-hour meeting at https://www.youtube.com/user/pcctv1