CLEARWATER — Beach business owners begged Clearwater Mayor George N. Cretekos to not close public beaches during Spring Break, traditionally the busiest time of the year.
But their pleas went for naught when first the City Council voted to shut down the beach, followed by a Pinellas County Commission decision last week to close all of the county’s beaches and public beach parking until April 4.
“It’s devastating for our members. They do not have a work-from-home option,” said Amanda Payne, executive director for Amplify Clearwater.
Payne and Clearwater Beach business owners held a video conference with Cretekos, Mayor-elect Frank Hibbard, City Manager Bill Horne, and Emergency Management Director Jevon Graham in the hour before the Clearwater council held an emergency meeting March 18. Cretekos convinced the council at that meeting to close all public beaches in the city’s borders. City Council member David Allbritton voted against the beach closure.
Amplify Clearwater members — told in advance that Cretekos would ask for a vote to close the beaches — pleaded with city officials to not do it.
“Our members pointed out that closing the beach for two weeks has longer-term, domino effect — all of a sudden people don’t come back,” Payne said. “Retail establishments, hotels, and restaurants are struggling, and the closure of the public beaches did not help that.”
Payne urged the city officials to remember that beach businesses are owned by local residents who have to pay bills and live daily in Clearwater.
“The people who work here live here, as do the owners and operators of the motels, stores, and other beach businesses,” she said. “It is truly a local ownership, locally invested beach, made up of a variety of mom-and-pop places. Those types of establishments will be hit hardest by this closure.”
Cretekos, who said he understood the impact beach closures would have on businesses, said it was important for Clearwater to lead during the crisis.
The council’s emergency order read:
“All public bathing beaches, public beach accesses, the Courtney Campbell Recreation Area, Beach Walk, Sand Key Bayside Park, and public beach parking lots in the city of Clearwater as determined by the Emergency Management Director are closed for two weeks, effective Monday, March 23, at 6 a.m.”
The order also shut down meetings of all city boards and commissions (except for City Council meetings) and all in-person mass gatherings of any type, whether organized or otherwise, consisting of 10 people or more.
The city’s decision to close beaches — ultimately trumped by the county, which called for all beaches to be cleared as of midnight March 20 — culminated a week of bad news for restaurants, hotels, and beachgoers who have tried to adjust their plans.
“This is supposed to be the best time of the year,” said Avi Bensimon, owner of Shorty’s Breakfast & Gourmet Deli on Sand Key. “I usually have seven shifts filled, but now have two and a half shifts because I don’t need all my employees. There is no traffic.”
Bensimon, who has worked at Shorty’s for eight years, worked his register as a few customers came in. His status as a grocery store allows him to operate his grill and deck restaurant, but like other Clearwater restaurants, he can’t sell alcohol after 10 p.m.
Kinleigh Doiron, 23, and her sister Karson said they wanted Clearwater to keep its beaches open. She and her sisters were taking a break from the beach and shopping at a beach retail store.
“No, they shouldn’t close,” Kinleigh said. “I think it’s a matter of separation, there is always separation at the beach already. People put out their beach chairs away from other people already.”
A front desk clerk at the Clearwater Beach Marriott Suites on Sand Key said occupancy was around 60 percent and falling. People with reservations were calling to cancel, the clerk said.
Keisha Katsares, her daughter Madison, 12, and her friend Alexandria Couch were among a group of tourists checking out of the Marriott Suites after spending a few days at the hotel on a mini-vacation. Their real vacation was supposed to be a cruise to the Bahamas with other students and parents from Woodrow Wilson Middle School in Tampa.
“We had been planning this cruise for some time,” Katsares said. “This was our alternative. We came here and enjoyed ourselves for a few days. Now we’re heading back.”
Allegiant Airlines, which announced Thursday that it would cut about 15% of its flight capacity for April and May, was operating at St. Pete/Clearwater International Airport, dropping off some passengers while boarding others for Illinois and other parts. It was not cutting flights with booked passengers now.
Theresa Hance of Chicago was leaving her vacation early.
“I just want to get home in case they asked us to shelter in place,” Hance said as an attendant helped her with her luggage. “I’m not worried about anything, though.”
Frank Gallagher, a 70-something visitor, was heading back to Illinois a little early, because he, too, wanted to be home if there was an order to shelter in place.
“I love Florida, though, and we’re all going to get through this,” he said, smiling. “Guaranteed.”
When asked if he had received any blowback or complaints from people for the beach closure, Clearwater mayor Cretekos responded, “What I heard was, ‘Why are we waiting until Monday and why aren’t we doing it right away?’ There’s no right answer, but we’re trying to save lives, and that’s my overriding concern.”
Cretekos, who has served as Clearwater’s mayor for two terms, will be replaced by Frank Hibbard, who won the office on March 17. Cretekos said closing the beaches was not the kind of decision he wanted to make in his last days in office.
“Nope, it wasn’t,” he said.
Hibbard and new city councilmembers will be certified on March 30 and formally sworn in on April 2.