Belleair officials to residents: Follow the rules or we’ll close parks, golf courses

Signs around town put it bluntly: Follow the social distancing guidelines or the parks may close.

BELLEAIR — A few bad apples may spoil all of the green space for the residents of Belleair.

That was the message the town manager and police chief delivered to commissioners April 2 when they said a lack of adherence to social distancing requirements at parks and golf courses may lead to both being closed.

During an update on Belleair’s response to the coronavirus crisis, Town Manager J.P. Murphy said police officers are receiving several complaints about people outside not following social distancing guidelines, which require groups of 10 or less with people spaced 6 feet apart.

“Some folks aren’t taking it seriously as we really want them too,” he said, citing, for example, larger than usual crowds at the bluff for sunsets.

Police Chief Rick Doyle said, in most cases, people say they are family members, which is hard to verify.

In other cases, he said officers are just doing their best to discourage the behavior, which is leading to some unpleasant encounters.

“I could say we had more people in the parks that are basically telling us to just pound sand and buzz off,” he said. “The goal of this whole thing is not for us to be issuing citations and putting people in jail. But if people escalate it to that level, we have no problem doing that. We haven’t gotten there yet.”

Breaking the rules

Golf courses, which are considered essential activities under the governor’s and county’s stay-at-home orders, have also proven to be problematic in the past week.

“We got some calls about golfers and employees not following CDC guidelines,” Murphy said.

Police Chief Rick Doyle has spoken with general managers from both the Belleair Country Club and Pelican Golf Club, Murphy said, and officers have made unannounced visits to take pictures, which showed players not keeping their distance from each other.

“If we don’t see better compliance, we are going to have to probably make the decision to close those public spaces and golf courses,” he said.

However, Murphy said the clubs have appeared to make efforts to resolve the problem.

One of the clubs, he said, provided a list of the rules they are following and assurances that each player and employee is being instructed on what to do.

He added that officers made unannounced checks April 7 at several different times and at several different holes and saw no violations.

“I would hate to see us get to the point where we’re closing the parks or closing golf courses, because then we’re looking at narrow sidewalks, and we really can’t enforce people walking on the sidewalks,” Doyle said.

Public safety risk

Doyle emphasized that a lack of respect for the social distancing guidelines also puts his officers — and the entire department — at risk.

Therefore, he is asking officers to only make contact with people if it’s critical and to stay in their cars and use PA systems as much as possible.

“My primary concerns are the officers and keeping them healthy,” he said. “Unfortunately, with 20 people in our department, all it takes is one of us to get something and we’re without a police department. I don’t want to jeopardize that or our future because of a couple of stupid people who just can’t social distance.”

Murphy said town staff would continue to spread the word in person and via social media and add some signage to let people know that breaking the rules could mean green spaces would be shut down.

“If we don’t see better compliance, we are going to have to probably make the decision to close those public spaces and golf courses,” he said.