PINELLAS COUNTY, Fla. -- Pinellas County has voted to close 35 miles of coastline amid coronavirus concerns.
County leaders announced their decision a day after Clearwater city leaders decided to close Clearwater Beach to the public. The county's decision supercedes Clearwater's emergency order. That means all beaches, including Clearwater must close at 11:59 PM Friday, March 20th.
Beaches in Pinellas County, as well as the public parking spaces, will be closed at least until April 6, when county leaders could vote to extend the closure.
The county-wide shutdown does not affect private beaches.
On Wednesday, county leaders reiterated their stance to keep miles of Pinellas County beaches open. Then, hours later, Clearwater decided it would set an example and close their coastline.
ABC Action News' photos and video went viral Monday showing packed shorelines. Hundreds of phone calls, emails and social media messages flooded into Clearwater and Pinellas County offices with people angry about the crowds in lieu of social distancing recommendations to stop the spread of the coronavirus.
BUSY BEACH! This is what @MyClearwater Beach looks like right now as spring break crowds flock to the sand. #Clearwater leaders haven’t decided if they should add a curfew or close beaches but they may vote on measures related to the #coronavirus this Thursday. @abcactionnews pic.twitter.com/jGoxQdYJg5— Sarah J. Hollenbeck (@SarahHollenbeck) March 16, 2020
Thursday, Pinellas County Commissioners will discuss options related to the beaches including shutting them down, closing down beach parking or putting in curfews.
Earlier this week, Pinellas County Sheriff deputies dropped off letters for hotel and business owners along the beach telling them to enforce breaking up groups of 10 or more and ensuring beach chairs and cabanas were at least six feet apart.
Sheriff Bob Gualtieri expressed his concerns about the beach closures to Pinellas County Commissioners. He worries about enforcement and if closing beaches will lead to a spike in crime with fewer activities for people to take part in. Sheriff Gualtieri also showed helicopter video taken Thursday of thinner crowds at beaches and said the situation had changed drastically for the better since the viral photos were taken as more people kept their distance on the sand.
“By all means if we saw a problem that was not manageable I would be the first one telling you need to react. I don’t see that and I don’t see what we saw a few days ago,” Gualtieri said to county leaders.
Commissioner Dave Eggers stressed that it was county leaders' duty to keep people safe. “I hope and pray in 3-4 months that people call our offices and say we overreacted. I hope and pray that’s what it is,” he said.
ABC Action News also talked to beach visitors and beach businesses about the closures.
Matthew Loder, the owner of the Original Crabby Bill's on Indian Rocks Beach says while he is disappointed, he understands the reason for the closure.
“I want county leaders to know that business people understand or at least this business person understands they’re making the best choice they can,” he said.
Logan Pack, who was visiting Clearwater Beach from Wisconsin agrees. “I’m not trying to get sick. I’ve got elderly family I’m hanging out with and I don’t want them to get sick and I don’t want to bring anything back to them.”