The Pinellas County Commission voted unanimously to close public beaches and parking areas effective 11:59 p.m. Friday and lasting until April 6th.
The vote comes after images of Clearwater Beach, packed with spring break visitors, went viral over the weekend. The footage gained widespread condemnation of Pinellas Beaches not enforcing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendation that people keep a distance of six feet from each other.
In a lengthy and sometimes contentious meeting Thursday, Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri urged commissioners to either keep the beaches open or to take incremental steps. He opposed closing them entirely.
For more than 10 minutes, Gualtieri played a video of aerial images of Pinellas beaches taken earlier Thursday.
"You're seeing a lot of distancing, self-regulation, spreading out,” he said, pointing out places where people had drawn six-foot circles around their beach chairs.
“You're not seeing any of that stuff (from the weekend), even on Clearwater Beach. So if you shut it down, where are they going to go?”
Gualtieri repeated similar statements he made on Tuesday when he argued that shutting the beach down doesn’t do anything to address people gathering on Beach Drive, as well as in restaurants, hotel rooms, or other places where COVID-19 might spread easier.
But Pinellas County Commission Chair Pat Gerard said that she doubts the behavior shown on the sheriff’s recent video won't last.
"I mean, frankly, we're in a situation where spring break is going to go on for months – not just weeks, but months – because kids are not going back to school,” she said.
Public universities and colleges in Florida, as well as schools around the nation, are switching to online-only learning for the rest of the spring semester.
The decision supersedes the city of Clearwater's decision to shut down its beach next Monday.
The county commission is also asking the state to temporarily close Honeymoon Island State Park and Caladesi Island State Park.
Owners of Pinellas beachfront property also are being asked to limit group gatherings to no more than 10 people and keep six feet apart from others.
Commissioners also urged residents to implement voluntary shelter in place practices.