Busy beach weekend after reopening raises concerns for Memorial Day holiday

The first weekend after Pinellas County beaches reopened was a "success" in terms of managing density on the sand with the online dashboard that shows real-time beach capacity and lots of manpower, the sheriff explained Thursday.

With one more weekend left until Memorial Day, Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said there is room for concern as more beachgoers are anticipated to make their way to the Gulf Coast of Pinellas.

During Thursday's commission meeting, the sheriff said Saturday was, not surprisingly, a busy beach day and, for the most part, people who arrived followed the social distancing guidelines and direction from law enforcement officers.

On opening weekend, there were 300 law enforcement officers along Pinellas County beaches, from north to south.

"Saturday is a view of what we will face this upcoming weekend and next Memorial Day weekend," Sheriff Gualtieri explained. "The public was great and people were taking it seriously."

MORE: Which Florida beaches are open? Counties begin reopening beaches with restrictions

When one beach filled up, deputies would redirect beachgoers to nearby beach accesses that weren't at capacity. Beach accesses would reopen as people would leave, the sheriff said.

The online tracking tool for beaches was also widely utilized, the sheriff said with 166,000 hits over the weekend. Between 9 a.m. and 11 a.m. Saturday, there were 25,000 hits on the dashboard.

Based on IP addresses, most of those hits were coming from people in eastern Hillsborough County -- 13,000 were in the Brandon area alone.

There are areas of concern as Pinellas County officials look ahead to Memorial Day weekend. The following beaches quickly filled up this past Saturday: Fred Howard Park, Dunedin Causeway, Clearwater Beach, Sunset Beach, Treasure Island, St. Pete Beach, Pass-A-Grille, and Fort De Soto. 

Even on Wednesday night, the sheriff said the Dunedin Causeway had to shut down around 7 p.m.

"Way too many people," Sheriff Gualtieri said, "and they couldn't practice social distancing. The problem with Dunedin Causeway is the beach is so narrow…it just fills up very fast."

When it comes to Memorial Day weekend, the sheriff and County Administrator Barry Burton said communication with hotels will be key in terms of providing social distancing information and tools, like the dashboard, for guests who will head to the beach.

MORE: Know before you go: Pinellas sheriff launches online tracking tool for crowded beaches

Burton said the county has already begun to build that communication line.

"Between the efforts of the sheriff and our staff we'll make sure they are well-informed," Burton promised.

While Sheriff Gualtieri said he is grateful for a "successful" beach weekend, he said there has to be an end in sight with the massive enforcement.

"I am happy and glad to…make this successful, but this is not sustainable forever," he said. "At some point, we have to take the training wheels off. We have to change the culture."

He said after the Memorial Day weekend, it will mark about three weeks since beaches reopened in the county. At that point, he said county leaders can have a better idea of how reopening beaches may have impacted the coronavirus cases in the area. They would be able to take a look at the number of cases and hospitalizations to determine the next step when it comes to managing beach capacity.

"We're going to have to really be watching that carefully. We'd really like to get back to normal and not have any of this to deal with this, but we have to do this responsibly," said Commissioner Dave Eggers. "Just begging people to be respectful of others. I think people just need to be careful in how they go about enjoying themselves out there."

The beach capacity tracking website will be running on the following days:

Saturday, May 16
Sunday, May 17
Friday, May 22
Saturday, May 23
Sunday, May 24
Monday, May 25

In addition to the beaches discussion, the commission also voted to extend its state of emergency for another week.