Pinellas County beaches will reopen Monday, May 4 at 7 a.m., following a vote by the Pinellas County Board of County Commissioners.
Commissioners separately voted to allow pools in condominiums, hotels and homeowners associations, as well as playgrounds at childcare facilities, to reopen Thursday morning, April 30 at 7 a.m.
Commissioners are expected to meet later this week to consider how to deal with businesses that have been closed under a statewide stay at home order. They are waiting on word from Gov. Ron DeSantis on what he intends to do once the state order expires on Thursday.
Pinellas beaches have been closed since March 21, in a move that commissioners hoped would flatten the curve and slow the spread of Covid-19 coronavirus.
As of Tuesday, Pinellas County had 709 confirmed cases of Covid-19 and 31 deaths, said Dr. Ulyee Choe, director of the Florida Department of Health-Pinellas County. Seventeen of the deaths were associated with long-term care facilities, Choe said.
On the local and regional level there’s been a plateau in new cases over the last few weeks, Choe said.
Pinellas County Administrator Barry Burton said he kept a close eye on those data trends before recommending re-opening the beaches and pools.
While some communities in Florida have re-opened with limited hours and only allow visitors to walk, run or otherwise exercise on the sand, the Pinellas beaches won’t have those restrictions.
“The key is that people spread out,” Burton said. “We have 35 miles of beach so people do have the opportunity to spread out.”
Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri described his plans to enforce social distancing on the beaches. His office will set up signs at every beach entrance and on the beaches themselves cautioning people to stand six feet apart and not gather in groups of 10 or more.
“We’ll have a minimum of 100 deputies out there. My plan is to have a person at every beach access point,” Gualtieri said. “What I envision is a strong presence that creates a reminder and that we stop any potential issue before it becomes an issue.”
Approval came after nearly four hours of debate, including about two hours of public comment. The majority of the those who called in to the online commission meeting said they favored opening beaches and pools, but St. Petersburg City Council member Robert Blackmon urged commissioners to hold off on the move.
“Our priorities are in the wrong spot. Beaches should not be at the forefront of our mind right now when we have so many small business owners hurting,” Blackmon said. “A lot of people who are struggling to put food on the table, the last thing on their mind is getting to the beach.”
A survey by St. Pete Polls on Monday night found that 56 percent of Pinellas County residents opposed opening the beaches, with 37 percent of residents in favor of the measure, said Peter Schorsch, publisher of Florida Politics, a news blogging site.
“Some of you on the commission have relied on our polling for your political ambitions and have trusted those number before, I ask you to trust those numbers again,” Schorsch asked commissioners. “Eighty-three people died in Florida yesterday. It was our record amount of deaths. We are not out of the woods.”
Commissioner Ken Welch cast the only vote against re-opening the beaches. Welch said he is concerned that there has been too little testing done in Pinellas County to know how many people actually have or have had the virus.
While the total number of Covid-19 cases in Pinellas County continues to rise, staying at home is not sustainable in the long term, said Dr. Angus Jameson, medical director at Pinellas County Emergency Management Services.
“We’re going to need to learn to live with this virus over the next three months, six months, maybe even 18 months until we have a vaccine or a high enough level of immunity within the community and it’s still under some debate whether you can get re-infected,” Jameson said. “But if that’s the case, we need to get to a point where we figure out how to sustainably keep this virus at bay without over-taxing the community.”