CLEARWATER BEACH, Fla. - Beaches in Pinellas County have been closed since spring break, but commissioners have now decided to reopen them for all uses except large gatherings.
After four hours of discussion and public comment, the county commission voted 6 to 1 to ease beach restrictions. Starting 7 a.m. on Monday, May 4 -- whether it's for exercise or to get a tan -- people can head to beaches as long as they practice social distancing guidelines. Public parking lots and restrooms will also reopen.
In addition, commissioners voted unanimously to allow swimming pools to reopen at 6 a.m. Thursday as long as people also practice social distancing. Pools are required to operate at 50% capacity at condos, apartments and hotels. Condo associations have the choice to not reopen pools.
"Both of these issues come down to people being responsible," said County Administrator Barry Burton. "Enforcement is going to be key. We have 35 miles of beach so people have the opportunity to spread out."
"Whether you're sitting in a chair, reading a book or walking, there is no difference in the risk factor," Burton added.
Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said law enforcement officials will have a "strong presence" at the beaches and will have a plan in place for when beaches reopen Monday.
"A minimum we would have out there is about 100 deputies," he said during Tuesday's meeting. "My plan is to have a person at every beach access point."
Gualtieri said the sheriff's office has been working with cities in terms of enforcement planning, adding that Clearwater Police Chief Daniel Slaughter will have police officers ready on Clearwater Beach, where images of packed beaches went viral during spring break.
Sheriff Gualtieri said the purpose is to show a strong presence and send a strong message from the beginning, so residents know to follow social distancing guidelines.
Burton's initial recommendation asked for beaches to reopen immediately, but city governments asked for extra days to plan.
Commissioner Kenneth Welch was the only one to vote against reopening beaches.
"One of the issues I have is with testing. We're not at that robust testing level that is in the federal guidelines," he explained. "The nightmare we have is that spring break scenario. We got the best beaches in the world. It's going to be a bigger draw that most beaches in the state."
Burton said part of the decision to ease restrictions come from the changes in data. For instance, Pinellas County is nowhere near hospital capacity, he said.
"As of today...in total out of over 3,200 beds, 130 residents in there currently," he said.
Burton wanted to remind the public that, at the local level, they only have control over the beaches and pools, which is why they haven't made a decision on businesses reopening.
"Until the governor acts on his order that prevents you from leaving your home except to go to an essential business or service, then we can't act on opening non-essential businesses," he said.
Leaders in Sarasota County reopened beaches Monday for exercise and will plan to phase in parking lots in the next two weeks.
Charlotte County also reopened its beaches Monday. Hernando County officials plan to reopen their beaches Wednesday.
Statewide, Governor Ron DeSantis says he will announce his reopening plan Wednesday -- one day before Florida's stay-at-home order is set to expire.
Commissioner Dave Eggers said after that, local leaders will be able to respond based on DeSantis' decision -- that could include how to handle non-essential businesses moving forward.
The next commission meeting will begin at 9:30 a.m. Friday.
The Pinellas County commission meeting can be viewed below:
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