Beaches and pools in Pinellas County will soon be reopened.
Pinellas County commissioners on Tuesday voted 6-1 to reopen beaches, parking lots and restrooms starting Monday at 7 a.m. following public comment both for and against the idea.
Community pools will reopen Thursday starting at 6 a.m.
Visitors will still need to adhere to social distancing guidelines and gatherings of 10 or more will be prohibited. Beach restrooms will be cleaned and disinfected based on CDC guidelines.
The decision comes a week after Sarasota County voted to reopen its beaches only for "essential activities" such as running, biking and fishing. Also on Tuesday, Hernando County voted to reopen its parks and beaches beginning Wednesday -- again following social distancing guidelines.
Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch was the lone dissenting vote. He said there has not been enough COVID-19 testing and stressed that businesses were more important than recreation. He advocated a more measured approach and says Pinellas County needs more widespread testing for coronavirus, as well as contact tracing.
The determination to reopen beaches was made after commissioners said the county has effectively flattened the curve of new coronavirus cases.
Dr. Uylee Choe, director of the Florida Department of Health-Pinellas County said there have been 709 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the county, and 31 deaths. He said the focus needs to remain on the vulnerable population, those 65 and over and individuals with chronic health problems like diabetes and high blood pressure. Choe said 83% of deaths from coronavirus in Pinellas County were among those 65 and older. The number of individuals who have been tested in the county, at both public and private sites, is 13,400.
Pinellas County Administrator Barry Burton and Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said they will be posting two-sided signs reminding the public about social distancing and safe behavior in this time of the coronavirus.
Gualtieri assured commissioners that the Sheriff's Office would be able to effectively enforce the social distancing guidelines.
"I can assure you in the strongest of terms that we have the resources and we are prepared to enforce this to make sure that the right thing is done and that it doesn't regress because of people not adhering to the social distancing requirements," Gualtieri said.
Gualtieri also stressed that reopening the beaches would give residents more space to enjoy the outdoors, and not be confined to specific areas that would result in crowds forming.
He specifically mentioned the east side of the Courtney Campbell Causeway, in Hillsborough County, which he said was "packed, absolutely packed" this weekend, because "people were being squeezed into wherever they can squeeze into, where there was either not enforcement or it was allowed."
"You're going to have spreading out," Gualtieri said. "We are absolutely seeing, because people are pushed into one corner so they stay in that corner. If you open up more, you're going to allow them to spread out more."
During public comment, some parents expressed frustration with not being able to take their children to the beach, and asked commissioners to open them once again.
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On Saturday, Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri wrote an open letter on Facebook, saying the time is right to reopen beaches.
“It is my trust in Pinellas County residents and belief in the available data that makes me confident that we can safely open our beaches and pools and this week is the right time to do so,” Gualtieri wrote.
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