People mostly staying off Pinellas’ closed beaches

The area of Clearwater Beach seen behind Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, left, and Clearwater Police Chief Daniel Slaughter is empty about noon Saturday, March 21, the first day all the county’s public beaches shut down. Gualtieri and Slaughter called a press conference to up the public on the current situation.

CLEARWATER — Pinellas County’s beaches were pretty empty on the first day of a more than two-week closure that started Saturday, March 21.

Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri and Clearwater Police Chief Daniel Slaughter held a media briefing at noon Saturday on Clearwater Beach to talk about the situation.

“Overall we’ve had great compliance,” Gualtieri said. “Things are going very well.”

Since the closure of the beaches and beach parking lots went into effect, the sheriff’s office has dealt with 82 public parking lots from Dunedin to Pass-a-Grille. Gualtieri said some are fully closed and others are partially closed to allow access to local beach businesses.

“The last thing we want to do is something that adversely affects those businesses,” he said.

Many of them are restaurants that already are limited to only doing take-out and delivery service after Gov. Ron DeSantis ordered them to close their dining rooms on March 20.

Gualtieri said the beaches weren’t totally vacant. He reminded everyone that in some areas, especially from Belleair Beach south, there is a lot of mixed use with private beach areas owned by hotels, apartments and condominiums. He said someone had called and complained because cabanas were out on the beach. However, cabanas are OK at hotels and other private locations, he said.

People also can take a walk along wet sand areas, and some are out doing that, he said.

The sheriff’s office helicopter flew over the beach from St. Pete Beach to Clearwater Beach on Saturday morning and the pilots reported that there were some people on the beach, but not many. The most at any one place were in groups of five, they said.

“We’re very thankful for everybody’s cooperation,” Gualtieri said, adding that deputies would continue to monitor the situation.

Slaughter said things were going OK on Clearwater Beach as well, pointing out that it was a very large beach that normally would have very high use right now. He said officers patrolling the beach had encountered some people and had explained the rules to them.

He agreed with Sheriff Gualtieri’s concern about how complicated it is to try to close the beaches. He said Clearwater Beach had three distinct areas – a large public beach, the north beach residential area and the area closer to Sand Key.

“The lines are very complicated,” he said.

Regardless, the decision has been made to close the beaches and “we’re at a point where we have to comply,” he said.

“And compliance is not about what’s going to happen to me — am I going to be arrested,” Slaughter said. “It’s about what’s going to happen to us all if we don’t mind our leaders.”

He said things were changing at a rapid pace.

“So we all just need to be in a mindset of compliance as we get through this virus,” he said, adding that he and Gualtieri were “very empathetic and talk frequently about how the coronavirus is impacting our community.”

Slaughter reminded people that there are still places they can go, such as the Memorial Causeway Walkway or the sidewalks on Clearwater Beach.

Gualtieri added that the Dunedin Causeway was still open, but not the beach areas. People are still able to take a walk on the causeway or ride their bicycles, he said.

Gualtieri said the expectation is for people to make “a reasonable good faith effort and do the right thing.”

As to the possibility of an arrest, the sheriff said, “People are going to have to beg their way into jail. But if they do something big that’s really, really silly and they’re very flagrant about it and they don’t listen to many asks, then we’ve got to do what we’ve got to do.”

He said it is his expectation that those instances will be rare or nonexistent.

Besides the sheriff’s office and Clearwater police, the other police departments monitoring local beaches include Indian Shores and Treasure Island.

Slaughter said he had plenty of personnel to patrol the beaches since he had already ramped up for another week of spring break activities. In addition, since school is out, school resource officers are available if needed.

The sheriff doesn’t plan to put additional personnel on the beaches.

Gualtieri still blames the national media for the closures. He said the video aired by CNN and other national media outlets as late as Thursday of the big crowd on Clearwater Beach on Monday had been irresponsible because it was an inaccurate representation of what was occurring.

He said the decision to close the beaches was made in part by old news on the national media.

“Playing the same clips over and over again that were totally inaccurate is not what the media should be doing,” he said.

Pinellas County commissioners voted unanimously during a March 19 emergency meeting to close the beaches through at least April 6.

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