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Pinellas Beaches Busy On First Day Back

A group of teenagers sits on a beach towel at Clearwater Beach.
Daylina Miller/WUSF Public Media
Beachgoers from Fort DeSoto to Tarpon Springs showed up in flocks after being shut out since mid-March due to the Coronavirus Pandemic.

Pinellas County's beaches were busy Monday, on the first day that people were allowed to return to the sand.

Beachgoers from Fort DeSoto to Tarpon Springs showed up in flocks after being shut out since mid-March due to the coronavirus pandemic.

A photo of clearwater beached with people on blankets and with umbrellas all spaced out down the sand.
Credit Daylina Miller/WUSF Public Media
Clearwater spokesman Rob Shaw said it's hard to quantify how many people were on Clearwater Beach opening day, but that while it was very busy, it was fewer than expected.

On Clearwater Beach, hundreds of people enjoyed the sand and surf amid large signs warning them to keep six feet apart unless they lived together.

The signs also discourage groups of more than 10 - which was enforced by officers patrolling the sand in marked SUV's - and encourage people to wear masks. Few did.

"I'd like to see more people wearing face masks," said Pat Gerard, chair of the Pinellas Coutny Commission. "I saw one on my whole walk up here. But who wears face masks to the beach? Right?"

William Johnson drove from Tampa to enjoy the first day out on Clearwater Beach. He said there's a lot less to be concerned with germ wise out there than in a restaurant or store.

A police SUV sits on the sand.
Credit Daylina Miller/WUSF Public Media
Marked Clearwater Police Department vehicles patrol the sand, the officers answering questions and addressing issues.

"We're out in the open air. We're not in a closed environment. We're not really touching anything that doesn't belong to us," Johnson said. "We try not to touch our face or eyes. But to be honest, I'm not too worried about it out here."

Jinia Johnson, a teenager from Tampa, said she really needed a beach day with her friends, despite social distancing rules that recommend people not gather anywhere with people outside of their household.

"I know it's, like, scary, but I think it's important that we all try to act normal, I guess, and just try and go back to our daily lives. It's really hard to stay in this quarantine life and I feel like some people are getting a little too used to it."

A yellow beach sign encourages people to stay six feet apart.
Credit Daylina Miller/WUSF Public Media
Signs across the beach lay out the new rules.

Beaches in Madeira, Pass-A-Grille and Belleair reached capacity early on, said Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri.

Others, like Honeymoon Island in Dunedin, were restricting access to 50 percent capacity and had to turn people away. Gualtieri said the restrictions likely led to bigger crowds on the beaches off the Dunedin Causeway.

He said once the beaches reach capacity, deputies in parking lots direct people to move on.

“This is how we're going to manage this, is when we see areas that are full, the deputies are going to shut it down and tell people to move to another area so we don't have too many people on the beach so that they can't do anything other than be on top of each other,” Gualtieri said.

Pinellas had 300 law enforcement officers patrolling beaches, with every beach access point and parking lot staffed.

Overall, Gualtieri said, people were being compliant and following social distancing rules.

 A sign on the beach says groups of more than 10 shouldnt gather and face masks are encouraged.
Credit Daylina Miller/WUSF Public Media
City and county officials say people at beaches have been good about social distancing, but most are not wearing the recommended masks.

"No one's on top of one another, the way it's supposed to be," said Patti Fortuna, who drove to the beach from Davenport with her husband, Anthony.

Rob Shaw, spokesperson for the City of Clearwater, said it's mostly business as usual, but beachgoers can't rent chairs or cabanas.

"You can bring your own chairs, your own blankets, your own coolers. It's beach as usual for that purpose. You can't play volleyball; the nets have been taken down. So we're trying to get away from things that would encourage large groups of people in one small spot."

Shaw recommends beachgoers consider coming early in the day or late in the evening  to stagger the number of people on the sand and sidewalks at one time.

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