Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said the coming weekend will be the ‘greatest challenge’ for managing crowds.
Thousands of visitors enjoyed Pinellas County’s famous beaches on Monday, but the biggest test for controlling crowds and making sure people keep their distance from one another will come between Friday and Sunday, Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said Tuesday.
Updating the Pinellas County Commission, Gualtieri commended visitors for adhering to the social-distancing requirements that came with the county’s decision to reopen access on Monday to the 35 miles of world-famous beaches. They were closed for six weeks to help stop the spread of COVID-19.
“Yesterday was a successful day,” Gualtieri told commissioners. “Something we can’t lose sight of is it was a very busy day out here.”
More than 300 deputies and police officers patrolled beaches, parking lots and hundreds of access points across the county. The agency’s helicopter watched from above to make sure crowds didn’t overtake the sand. There were no beach-related arrests on Monday.
With Mother’s Day on Sunday, the sheriff said this weekend will be “our greatest challenge” for making sure visitors can enjoy the sun, sand and saltwater without drawing criticism for opening the beaches. Law enforcement officers have been told to limit access to beach-goers once any spot becomes congested, he said.
Gualtieri assured commissioners that his goal is to keep the beaches open and manage the crowds. He expects to keep the heavy presence of law enforcement through the weekend and will consider any changes next week.
A video of visitors packing Clearwater Beach on March 16 went viral, prompting a flood of accusations that Pinellas elected officials were enabling a public health crisis. Gualtieri condemned the national media for replaying the same video throughout that week, even as beach crowds dissipated when spring break visitors went home.
The Pinellas County Commission voted 6-1 last week to lift the closure. County administrator Barry Burton recommended the opening after he asked municipal leaders for suggestions on how to gradually reopen Pinellas County.
On Tuesday, Gualtieri said he plans to ask state officials to increase capacity at Honeymoon Island from 3,000 to 4,000 visitors for the weekend. The state limited the park’s capacity to 50 percent on Monday, or 3,000 visitors.
Gualtieri urged commissioners to keep an open mind when they see beach photos and said images taken from the ground paint a different picture than scenes captured from the helicopter. The “ground images” are “not the right picture,” he said. Managing the capacity and moving people around will be the key to preventing congestion, he added.
He presented aerial views from above the Don Cesar Hotel, Pass-A-Grille, Clearwater Beach, the Dunedin Causeway and Fred Howard Park in Tarpon Springs to show people spaced out between each other at each location.
“There’s a lot of room out there on the beach to spread out,” he said.
By Mark Puente/SCOTT KEELER – Tampabay.com