Come to the beach, have fun, but keep your distance, sheriff says

Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office has launched a tool to allow the public to see which beaches are open, nearing capacity or closed because they are too full to allow people to comply with social distancing rules — groups of 10 or less spaced 6 feet apart.

Pinellas County Beaches will be open this weekend, the first time in six weeks. And it is expected to be a busy time as Sunday is Mother’s Day.

The county’s beaches closed on March 20 and reopened on May 4.

Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said Thursday that the reopening had been “going very well.” He said everyone was maintaining spacing and social distancing, keeping to groups of 10 or less, 6 feet apart.

“We look forward to a successful first weekend here in Pinellas County with the beaches being open,” he said, during a question and answer session with County Administrator Barry Burton on Facebook Live.

He said law enforcement would be stationed on the county’s 35-miles of beaches, at beach access points, parking lots, bridges and roadways from Fred Howard Park in Tarpon Springs to Fort De Soto in Tierra Verde.

The goal is to “help out and make sure everyone stays safe and stays healthy out there,” he said.

“The big deal when coming to the beaches is come, have fun, patronize the businesses, do whatever everybody does on the beach and you should have a great time, but do so in an orderly way,” the sheriff said.

The way to keep things orderly with everyone spread out is to manage beach capacity. The sheriff’s office is launching a new tool that will provide real-time updates on capacity of beaches, beach parking lots and bridges.

The tool will be available starting at 1 p.m. today (May 8) at www.pcsoweb.com/beachcapacity. The sheriff’s office and county government will also be posting status updates throughout the weekend on Facebook and Twitter.

Gualtieri said the tool also would provide suggestions for other beaches to visit if the one people had planned to go to was full. The beach capacity dashboard will show green for open, yellow for reaching capacity and red for closed, meaning the access point is closed.

“We encourage everyone to use these tools,” Gualtieri said, adding that the dashboard would be updated constantly.

The idea is to prevent people from driving to a beach and then find out it is closed, but to know before they travel.

As of Sunday afternoon, the dashboard was inactive. A post on the sheriff’s Facebook page said, “Due to the weather and reduced activity on the beaches, the Beach Capacity Dashboard is now inactive. Stay tuned to our social media channels for updates on when it will be reactivated.”

Monday afternoon, the sheriff’s office announced that the dashboard would no longer be active Monday-Friday; however, deputies will still continue to patrol the beaches.

A modified version will launch on Saturday May 16 at 9 a.m. and remain active through the weekend. For Memorial Day weekend, the dashboard will be active starting at 1 p.m. Friday, May 22-Monday, May 25. Updates on beach closures will be posted on Twitter.

“We’ll be managing the beaches as far as density is concerned,” Gualtieri said. “If the beaches themselves get to the point people can’t social distance, then we’ll close the access point so the beaches aren’t so full people can’t comply with the law.”

The general rule of thumb is that people who come together in the same car, get to stay together, as long as the group is 10 or less, he said. And those five or six people who come together in the same car don’t have to stay 6 feet apart.

But if that group of 5-6 people gets with another group of 5-6 people and they join with others and the group grows larger — that’s not going to work, Gualtieri said.

“We ask people to use good judgement and commonsense and do this in the spirit in which it was intended, and that is to keep people healthy and safe,” he said.

Social distancing has been working to flatten the curve of COVID-19 cases. The sheriff said everyone wants to get the beaches and businesses open, but no one wants to see a resurgence and the number of cases going up.

Deputies and other law enforcement will be reminding and educating people about social distancing this weekend to make sure they are following the rules. If they aren’t, they’ll be reminded again, Gualtieri said.

“If they still don’t, we’re going to ask them to leave because they shouldn’t be distracting from the fun others are having on the beach,” he said. “We’re going to do everything we can to help you to know what is open, what is full and what is getting full and redirect people to areas where there is capacity.”

For tips on visiting the beach responsibly, visit https://www.visitstpeteclearwater.com/tips-for-visiting-responsibly-st-peteclearwater.

Suzette Porter is TBN’s Pinellas County editor. She can be reached at sporter@tbnweekly.com.

Revised to include new information about the beach capacity dashboard.