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Pinellas County beaches to reopen Monday

Commissioners voted Tuesday to reopen local beaches as Florida continues to plan for a phased reopening of the state.

PINELLAS COUNTY, Fla. — Pinellas County beaches will reopen Monday.

The group voted 6-1 to reopen local beaches at 7 a.m. Monday, May 4. Commissioners also voted to unanimously to reopen pools at 6 a.m. Thursday, April 30. 

With both reopenings, people are still told to practice social distancing guidelines provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The beaches have been closed for more than a month to help stop the spread of coronavirus. Commissioners voted Tuesday to reopen them and discussed ways to do that while continuing to combat the coronavirus.

Local beaches were to stay closed until May 1 as state and county stay at home orders were put in place through Thursday, April 30. Since the beaches closed in mid-March, locals and leaders have been back and forth on if, how and when beaches could reopen. 

Both Sheriff Bob Gualtieri and County Administrator Barry Burton said they had supported efforts to reopen beaches. And, both spoke at length Tuesday about ways to safely allow people back on the county's 35 miles of shoreline.

"The key is people spread out. The key is that you're not congregating in large groups," Burton said. "We have 35 miles of beach; people have the opportunity to spread out."

Gualtieri and Burton said they've been working on producing hundreds of signs that remind people to stay six feet apart and not to gather in groups larger than 10. These signs would be placed at entrances and on certain areas of the beach so that "people are reminded constantly."

"We can't have too many signs," Gualtieri said. "We need to have a tremendous reminder all the time that this is not business as usual."

Gualtieri also spoke about how these measures would be enforced, saying the minimum would be 100 law enforcement officers with a goal of at least one deputy or officer at every beach access point.

"At this time, Pinellas County residents have adjusted to the new norm of social distancing, and I believe they will continue to responsibly use these best practices on our beaches and in the pools. However, if necessary, PCSO has the resources to ensure compliance through a gentle reminder," he wrote in a Facebook post last week.

RELATED: What Florida beaches are open? A county-by-county list

RELATED: Pinellas County sheriff wants beaches, pools reopened. County administrator pushing phased approach

Commissioners also heard from more than a dozen citizens on the proposal to reopen beaches, pools and playgrounds. Many were local small business owners who are mostly in favor of getting the beaches back open.

Some even exclaimed that county leaders have not been "listening to their citizens" when it comes to how the county should reopen things.

"These are our beaches," Tammy Vasquez said. "You've basically told them [citizens], 'you aren't smart enough to make your own decisions to stay safe.'"

Other commenters expressed the same worries as some of the commissioners -- that the beaches would be crowded with people not social distancing. Gwen Douse, who lives on Clearwater Beach, said the proposal was reopening beaches in a "floodgate manner."

Several commissioners expressed hesitation about reopening the beaches, especially on the weekends and on upcoming holidays that usually equate to packed beaches. 

"I am concerned about Memorial Day," Commissioner Welch said. "I'm not sure I'm ready to support reopening the beaches right now."

Welch was the only commissioner to vote "no" on the motion to reopen the beaches.

Vice Chairman Dave Eggers even brought up the idea of reopening beaches with restrictions during the week but keeping them closed on the weekends.

"I want to get back to being normal," Commissioner Kathleen Peters said. "But I am concerned that we will be starting an influx of more disease...What are we going to do if we do have an uptick?"

Dr. Ulyee Choe, director of Florida Department of Health in Pinellas County, didn't offer an opinion for or against reopening beaches, but said people are "really going to have to learn to live with this virus."

"We need to figure out how to sustainably keep this virus at bay without overly taxing the community," Choe said.

Last week, Burton sent a three-page memo outlining possible measures the county can take to ease into reopening while also slowing the spread of coronavirus. 

Burton’s plan for the county has two steps. Firstreopening public beaches, public beach parking lots and public swimming pools. The second step involves the board updating the county stay at home order in anticipation of either the extension or expiration of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ statewide order. 

Pinellas County beaches are the latest to begin reopening in Florida. On Monday, beaches in Sarasota County opened but were restricted to walking, jogging, biking, surfing and swimming. 

RELATED: Lakeland to open parks, trails and boat ramps Friday

RELATED: Sarasota County beaches reopen on Monday with restrictions

And, in more than a dozen counties around the state, some beaches have reopened with restricted hours or rules in place to keep people social distancing and to prevent people from gathering too long on the sand. 

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