Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri was critical on Saturday of the national media’s coverage of local spring breakers, which he said led to the closure of all county beaches this week.
Video footage of packed Pinellas County beaches on Monday was played all week on national news channels putting pressure on the area’s leaders to close beaches.
The crowds had died down significantly by later in the week but the news channels continued to carry the footage, said Gualtieri, as he delivered a press conference in front of an empty Clearwater Beach.
“I think it was irresponsible for the national media, CNN and these other outlets as I saw them as recently as Thursday morning, that they were playing the same clip over and over again that was wholly inaccurate,” Gaultieri said. “If that’s what was happening at that moment, I would be the first one with my hand up saying we’ve got to do something about this.”
When the footage was taken, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis had yet to order beach mitigation. Other measures limiting access had not started or were in the early stages of being implemented, Gaultieri said.
Later, the governor limited groups at gathering places, including beaches, to 10 or fewer people. But by then local leaders were getting calls to close beaches.
“I don’t think it’s a good way to do something where you put mitigation measures in place, you don’t let them even see if they work and then you increase it exponentially,” Gaultieri said.
On Saturday, Gaultieri and Clearwater Beach Chief Dan Slaughter said most people were complying with the beach closures. A sheriff’s office helicopter flew over the beaches in the morning and found few visitors.
“The greatest number of people in any one place was five,” Gaultieri said.
Eighty-two beach access parking lots from Dunedin to Pass-a-grille are closed.
People are allowed to walk the beaches along the wet sand areas and private beaches in front of hotels, condominiums and homes are open to guests and residents, Gaultieri said.
Because of that, it’s hard to determine if someone is lawfully on the beach or disobeying the order.
The sheriff’s office expects people to make a reasonable good-faith effort to comply and Gaultieri said he is not looking to arrest anyone.
“People are about going to have to beg their way into jail,” Gaultieri said. “But if they beg and they do something that is really, really silly and they are really flagrant about it and they don’t listen to many, many asks then we will do what we have to do.”
State parks that have beach access are also closed for 14 days following an order from Gov. Ron DeSantis late Friday night.