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Pinellas Sheriff focuses on bars, not beaches, for July 4

Margie Manning

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Clearwater Beach Beach Walk (Photo credit: Pinellas County)

With a growing number of COVID-19 cases, the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office will concentrate crowd control efforts over July 4 weekend in bars and other places that draw large crowds.

Pinellas beaches will stay open, and deputies will keep an eye on them, but they won’t mount the herculean efforts that were in place to enforce capacity and social distancing as they did over Mother’s Day and Memorial Day weekends, Sheriff Bob Gualtieri told the county’s Board of County Commissioners Tuesday.

Beaches in three south Florida counties will close this weekend, as the number of new COVID-19 cases continues to grow statewide. In Pinellas County, there were 227 newly confirmed cases and 12 additional deaths reported on Tuesday. Hospitals are feeling an increased strain on their resources, medical officials told commissioners.

“The latest number is  just over 300 hospitalized patients from COVID-19 in Pinellas County. Nine days ago we were at 200 and 10 days before that we were at 100,” said Dr. Angus Jameson, medical director of Pinellas County Emergency Medical Services. “The ICUs today have 75 COVID patients, with 82 available beds. That number in the ICUs has also doubled over the last 10 days or so. So you can see that before too long if we continue with this we’re going to have real strain in the hospitals.”

While Pinellas commissioners generally said they were not in favor of closing Pinellas beaches, Commissioner Ken Welch said he wanted to see law enforcement presence on the beaches, “to make sure we don’t have a repeat of spring break,” Welch said. In March, nationally broadcast images of crowds on Clearwater Beach led to a six-week beach shutdown in Pinellas County, in an effort to control the spread of COVID-19.

Beaches reopened on May 4 and for three weeks, sheriff’s deputies had a heavy presence on the beaches. At that time hotel occupancy was lower than it is now, so repeating that over July 4 weekend would not be feasible, Gualtieri said.

“You can call it whatever you want, but in effect it is a beach shutdown because what we did was to seriously limit capacity and to turn people away. It worked because we were able to relocate people to other areas. But when you have this number of people in hotels and you start pushing people away, all you are going to do is push them into the pools and the pool decks and the hotels,” Gualtieri said. 

The problem is not people on the sand, Gualtieri said. Instead it is big mass gatherings, he said.

The state last week suspended on-premise alcohol consumption in bars, and the sheriff’s office will start serious enforcement, including issuing first-time warnings, followed by criminal notices to appear in court and potential arrests, he said.

Florida also remains under Phase Two of a reopening plan, limiting capacity in restaurants to 50 percent, said Barry Burton, county administrator.

Business owners have a responsibility to enforce those limits themselves, Gualtieri said. He said it was unrealistic to consider it simply a law enforcement issue.

“Trying to do this through policing I don’t think is the right way to go. These businesses need to step up and they can help us fix this because they are the ones allowing it to happen,” Gualtieri said.

The debate over the beaches and business enforcement occurred as commissioners voted unanimously to extend the local state of emergency from July 3 to July 10.

Commissioners were scheduled to consider a second phase of the Pinellas CARES program providing financial assistance to individuals and businesses financially impacted by COVID-19, but that discussion was postponed to July 7, as county officials continue to work on new and expanded eligibility guidelines for the program.

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