The Pinellas County Board of County Commissioners voted unanimously Thursday afternoon to close Pinellas County public beaches from Saturday, March 21 to April 6 in an effort to control the spread of Covid-19 coronavirus.
“I don’t want this to become an issue in Pinellas County,” said Commissioner Karen Seel. “I am not going to bear the responsibility for an epidemic hitting our county.”
During the two-hour discussion Thursday afternoon, Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gaultieri said there was no need to shut down the beaches. He showed a video shot earlier Thursday, showing the beaches from Pass-a-Grille in south Pinellas County to North Clearwater Beach had relatively few visitors, and those who were there were practicing social distancing, with several feet of separation between them.
That was in keeping with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ order earlier this week that no group larger than 10 people should be on the beach. DeSantis stopped short of closing the state’s beaches although several counties have acted on their own to do so.
Keeping the beaches open amid a spate of other closings sends the wrong message, said Commissioner Dave Eggers.
“I think it sends a powerful signal when you tell people stay home, close your schools, and oh by the way go out to the beach and play and have fun,” Eggers said. “I think we need to send the signal to shut the beaches down.”
Commissioners asked for advice from Dr. Ulyee Choe, director of the Florida Department of Health in Pinellas County.
“Any measures that can assist with that social distancing aspect is something I can support,” Choe said.
As of 11 a.m. Thursday, there were 14 coronavirus cases in Pinellas, but Commissioner Ken Welch said the number was certain to increase as testing becomes more prevalent.
“It’s here and we know that. So do we take incremental steps or do something more?” Welch said. “What I’ve been struggling with is this something do we act locally, or do we wait for the state to do it or wait for the national government to do it?”
“I don’t really want to wait for the state and I really don’t want to wait for the national government,” Seel said. “We need to be proactive and put in our own plan to protect our citizens.”
Commissioner Kathleen Peters said she would rather leave the decision on closing the beaches to the experts, county administrators who have data. But Commissioner Janet Long and Commission Chair Pat Gerard said the county board had to show leadership on the issue.
“I agree we have the best people in charge. That’s why they are here and that’s why they are giving us advice, but people expect us to make these kind of decisions,” Gerard said. “People writing in on emails are not saying why doesn’t the county administrator close the beaches. They’re saying why don’t you idiots who sit up there on the dais close the beaches … We’re the ones who have to make the tough decisions.”
The emergency measure approved by the commission also closes public beach parking. Commissioners will ask the state to close Honeymoon Island, a state-owned park in Pinellas County.
It supersedes a vote Wednesday by the Clearwater City Council, which voted to close Clearwater beaches, but delayed that closure until Monday, March 23. Clearwater beaches also have to close beginning Saturday, under the Pinellas County order.