Parking lots to be closed; county staff and law enforcement officers to help enforce the restriction, county administrator says
As of 6 a.m. on Saturday, March 21, all Sarasota County public beaches will be closed, County Administrator Jonathan Lewis announced during a March 19 press conference at the county’s Emergency Operations Center.
County leaders’ concern, he said, has been that closings of beaches in other communities — especially in South Florida — would drive more visitors to the shoreline on the west coast of the state, including Sarasota County beaches.
“I traversed the beach from our southernmost point to our northernmost point today,” Lewis said. People have been doing “exactly what we’ve asked of them,” he added, which is gathering in groups of no more than 10 people and sitting at least 6 feet from other groups. People have been listening to the direction Gov. Ron DeSantis and health officials offered earlier in the week, Lewis emphasized.
“Unfortunately,” he continued, “we’ve been very worried [about the potential impact of beach closures in other parts of Florida]. … We’re worried about the gridlock that might come into play.”
“Our residents have been fantastic,” Lewis said, “and we will keep that in mind. … We will do our best to keep this closure as short as possible.”
“Sarasota County is known as a wonderful place to visit,” Lewis pointed out. “We don’t want to change that.”
“We will work on securing those facilities,” he added of the county’s beaches. County staff has been collaborating with the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office and other law enforcement agencies, he noted, as well as municipal leaders in the county.
Parking lots at the beaches will be closed, he pointed out, and signage will be set up on U.S. 41 to alert residents and visitors headed to Siesta Key that they will not be allowed in the beach parking lot.
Further, “We will continue to have staff out there to keep an eye on things,” Lewis added.
Rich Collins, director of the county’s Emergency Services Department, pointed out, “Lifeguards continue to work diligently to keep our beachgoers safe.” They will remain on the beaches after the Saturday closure, he said, working from 10 a.m. to 4:45 p.m., “specifically to … keep people safe” and to tell anyone who shows up on the beaches that they are closed.
A county news release issued after the press conference also noted that a double red flag, indicating no swimming, would be flying from lifeguard stands.
Collins pointed out that large signs will be erected at Siesta, Lido and Turtle beaches, as well as the multiple beach accesses on Siesta Key, to alert people to the emergency situation.
“This does not regulate what people do on their private beaches,” Lewis noted.
During the press conference, Jake Sauer, director of Manatee County’s Public Safety Department, announced that that county will be closing its beaches as well. That action was to go into effect as of 6 a.m. on Friday, March 20.
He and other Manatee County officials talked that morning with the mayors of all the island communities, including the Town of Longboat Key, Sauer said.
Manatee residents, like those in Sarasota County, had been adhering to the governor’s social distancing recommendations, Sauer continued. Still, like Sarasota County leaders, he said, Manatee County officials “felt the that there could possibly be … an influx of patrons that could possibly not be conducive to distancing themselves …”
Barricades would be set up in all the beach parking lots, Sauer added.
Again, like Lewis, Sauer said, “We do not take this closing lightly. … We felt it is imperative for public health … that we close these beaches for the foreseeable future.”
Another fluid situation
Just three days earlier — on March 16 — The Sarasota News Leader became aware that at least one Siesta Key resident had sent an email to the Sarasota County commissioners and administrative staff, pleading with them to ban Sarasota County students from the beaches. The writer saw that action as the best means of preventing the young people’s possible exposure to the novel coronavirus through contact with out-of-state spring break visitors.
After receiving a copy of that email, the News Leader asked about the status of the beaches, with COVID-19 becoming more widespread in the state. Media Relations Officer Drew Winchester responded in an email, “As of now, beaches are open.”
The following day, during a morning press conference, Gov. DeSantis noted the decisions of city leaders in Miami and Fort Lauderdale to close beaches because of large spring break gatherings. After speaking with mayors of municipalities on both coasts, DeSantis continued, he was advising local governments to implement a minimal policy calling for groups no larger than 10 on any beach and requiring that those groups maintain a separation of at least 6 feet from other people.
The figure of 10, he pointed out, resulted from guidance President Donald Trump announced on March 16, in accord with a recommendation of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
On the afternoon of March 17, Sarasota County issued an advisory that followed the governor’s recommendation. The news release further asked that people planning to visit the beach stay at home if they feel sick.
Efforts to promote ‘social distancing’ on the beaches
Just before 2 p.m. on March 17, County Administrator Lewis emailed the commissioners after reviewing the guidance from the state. “We have already been working to produce signage, media releases, and social media [posts] to encourage visitors to limit gatherings to no more than ten people and distance themselves from other parties by 6 feet and if sick stay home,” he wrote.
“Functionally, we do not have a way to gate off our beaches to close them,” Lewis added. “I am concerned that if we close them and pull our lifeguards and beach staff we will still have people come and have other problems.
“We will continue to monitor and adjust as needed,” he wrote.
Commissioner Nancy Detert responded just before 11 a.m. the following day, noting that the social distancing the governor recommended “does not seem to be happening. I would love to see the beaches remain open but patrolled to spread out the crowd to safe distances,” Detert added. “This is especially true for Siesta Key.”
She suggested the beaches remain open “Only if the rules are followed.”
Just after noon on March 18, Lewis sent another email to the commissioners. This one said, “At our beaches our signs have begun to be posted. [He attached a copy of the sign and a photo of one in place near the Pavilion at Siesta Public Beach.)
“The first round [of signs] is out and more/larger ones are on the way,” Lewis continued. “Our Beach staff is doing the best they can to encourage people to follow the directive. I have spoken with Sheriff [Tom] Knight and he has agreed to leverage some of his folks to help us in this regard. To be clear, this is not a law enforcement issue,” Lewis stressed, but instead, “a societal issue. We continue to promote with our residents and visitors their role in slowing the spread of the virus. At the beaches remember we have 3 miles of guarded beaches spread over 30 miles. We have many more miles beyond what is guarded.”
The News Leader also followed up with the Sheriff’s Office.
In an early-afternoon, March 18 email, Kaitlyn R. Perez, community affairs director for the Sheriff’s Office, wrote, “Agency leadership was made aware Tuesday of the new guidelines made by Governor DeSantis, particularly those that limit congregation of more than 10 people in one group, on public beaches. Sworn sheriff’s office members were immediately briefed on what actions they may take,” she continued. However, “deputies are continuing to lead all efforts with education prior to enforcement. I actually just spoke with our Law Enforcement Division [leader] who confirmed we are doing cursory checks on all Sarasota County beaches and we have deputies out there right now specifically communicating the guidelines to beachgoers. So far, we have had no issues and everyone has been very understanding and agreeable.”
Perez continued, “I also confirmed with both Sheriff Knight and Colonel [Kurt] Hoffman that they have been communicating very regularly with county administration, specifically Mr. Lewis …”
Hoffman is the chief deputy and general counsel for the Sheriff’s Office.
During the March 19 press conference, County Administrator Lewis emphasized the assistance of Sheriff’s Office personnel this week in advising those on the beaches of the social distancing recommendations. “People have been very agreeable and done that very readily,” he added, referencing information Hoffman had told him.
Perez further reminded the News Leader about the “daily conference calls with all constitutional offices and county officials to keep everyone informed of our respective protocols and any changes to policies or operations. I have been in on some of the calls and can tell you this experience has really been a great example of intergovernmental communications at their finest.”
Both Sarasota City Manager Tom Barwin and Chuck Henry, director of the Florida Department of Health in Sarasota County, have mentioned publicly the regular calls involving county and municipal administrative staff members, along with representatives of the county’s constitutional officers, such as the sheriff, so the Health Department can keep everyone updated on developments in the COVID-19 public health emergency.