Pinellas County’s law enforcement stands ready for another busy weekend on the beach. The sheriff’s office beach capacity dashboard will open at 9 a.m. Saturday to help people plan their trips.
Visit www.pcsoweb.com/beachcapacity for hourly updates on Saturday and Sunday about the capacity of beaches, beach parking lots and bridges. The dashboard will show what areas are open, those reaching capacity and those that are closed.
The sheriff’s office used the dashboard the first weekend after Pinellas County opened its beaches on May 4. Sheriff Bob Gualtieri told county commissioners during a meeting on May 14 that the dashboard received more than 166,000 views with 25,000 occurring between 9-11 a.m. on May 9. The sheriff said many of those hits had come from eastern Hillsborough County and the city of Brandon.
The sheriff’s office deactivated the dashboard on May 10 because the weather kept the crowds away on Mother’s Day and capacity wasn’t a problem.
However, Saturday, May 9, had been busy, Gualtieri said.
He had predicted that crowd control would be a challenge on opening weekend, and he was right about Saturday, which he called a good preview about what to expect this weekend, May-16-17 and on Memorial Day weekend, May 22-25.
Gualtieri said 300 law enforcement officers would continue to make sure people followed social distancing rules of groups of 10 or less spaced 6 feet apart. Deputies and police officers will be on the beach, at access points and in parking lots from Fred Howard Beach in Tarpon Springs to Fort De Soto in Tierra Verde.
He said on May 9 several parking lots had to be closed on Clearwater Beach, in Pass-A-Grille, St. Pete Beach, and areas along the Dunedin Causeway and Honeymoon Island State Park, as well as Fred Howard Park. On Saturday afternoon, Fort De Soto also was closed due to capacity issues.
He pointed out that at that time, local hotels had low occupancies, but he expects that to change by Memorial Day. He predicts that certain portions of the beach will have to be closed on the holiday weekend.
“Our No. 1 priority is for people to come to the beaches, enjoy themselves and patronize the businesses,” he said. “But when it gets to the point there is no room” people will be redirected to other areas.
The goal is to keep enough space to allow for social distancing.
He said the state has agreed to increase the capacity at Honeymoon Island State Park to 4,500. Not enough staff is available to manage more than that, he said.
Gualtieri said the plan to use law enforcement to manage beachgoers had worked.
“I’m not sure where we would be without that,” he said, pointing out that some of Florida’s beaches had opened and then had to close due to crowds.
But, after this weekend, the sheriff plans to reduce the number of deputies on beach duty to 120 during the week with more back on duty for the weekend through at least Memorial Day. He said at that point the beaches will have been opened for three weeks and it will be time to reevaluate the need.
He said he was “happy and glad and more than willing” to keep deputies on beach patrol to make the reopening successful, but pointed out that was not sustainable for the summer.
“At some point, we have to take off the training wheels and see if it establishes a culture,” he said.
Commissioner Dave Eggers thanked the sheriff for all he was doing.
“In a perfect world, we would only let Pinellas County residents use the beaches,” he said, before asking what was being done to let local hoteliers know that it was possible some of the beaches could be closed.
Gualtieri said they were being informed and agreed it was “all about managing expectations.”
County Administrator Barry Burton said staff had started reaching out to local hotels on May 13.
Gualtieri said messaging needed to focus on the fact that things are not business as usual here with the goal to create a different environment between now and Memorial Day. The sheriff plans to make cards that advertise the dashboard for hoteliers to pass out to their guests.
The dashboard will be open again from 1 p.m. Friday, May 22, through Memorial Day, May 25.
Gualtieri said he understood that people were paying for rooms and might be disappointed if they couldn’t get out on the beach.
He advised them to use the dashboard to plan their trips and get to the beach early.
Suzette Porter is TBN’s Pinellas County editor. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.