Complaints followed easing of restrictions on county-operated beaches on April 27
Editor’s note: The Sarasota News Leader is providing general reporting on the novel coronavirus to readers for free as a public service.
With at least two a residents having complained this week about gatherings of people on the City of Sarasota’s closed Lido Beach, the Sarasota Police Department (SPD) will enhance its patrolling efforts on that part of the county shoreline, The Sarasota News Leader has learned.
On April 22, during his discussion with the Sarasota County Commission about easing restrictions on county-operated beaches, County Administrator Jonathan Lewis explained that he wanted to allow the county’s municipal leaders to make their own decisions about allowing people back on their beaches.
As a result, City Manager Tom Barwin told the News Leader that the City of Sarasota would keep Lido off limits until city leaders felt the risk of spreading the novel coronavirus COVID-19 had diminished sufficiently.
In an email blast distributed by the city on the afternoon of April 22, Barwin wrote, “I know this has been hard for everybody, but our recovery needs to be smart, well thought out and sustainable. National medical experts have advised that lifting restrictions on social gatherings should only be considered following two weeks of no increases, and preferably declines, in new COVID-19 cases. We are not experiencing that in the north end of the county. The number of positive cases located within five zip codes in the city limits continues to rise.”
He was referring to the “heat maps” produced by Sarasota County staff in collaboration with the Florida Department of Health in Sarasota County.
On April 27, the day people once again were allowed on the county-operated beaches for exercise and fishing, Cindy Turner, manager of the county’s Beaches and Water Access Division, stressed that the city’s Lido Beach remained closed. County Communications staff also has emphasized that fact.
Additionally, the city’s Facebook page featured this notice on April 27: “REMINDER — LIDO BEACH CLOSED — Although limited access is available at Sarasota County beaches beginning today, Lido Beach will remain closed as we continue to monitor local #COVID19 testing results and consult with public health professionals. Thanks for your patience as we continue to #StopTheSpread!”
Nonetheless, Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch received two emails on April 28 that described considerable activity on Lido.
One writer, who provided a Lido Key address, told the mayor, “I applaud you for following the advice of medical experts and keeping Lido Beach closed. However, after about 6 pm many many people come onto the beach. When I took a walk about 6 pm tonight, there were about 60 cars parked along Ben Franklin Drive and the adjacent area of [John Ringling Boulevard]. It was like a giant beach party.”
That writer also noted what she indicated was a large gathering near the Lido Pavilion. “Not even social distancing,” the writer added. “This is so dangerous.”
A second woman, who said she lives near downtown Sarasota, sent an email to Ahearn-Koch and the other city commissioners the same night, describing similar findings to those of the first correspondent.
“At 6:45 this evening,” the second woman wrote, “I drove out to Lido Beach, knowing that it was not yet open to us for any reason. A single policeman (in his vehicle) put on his [loudspeaker] to hurry me along as I waited for less than a minute to see if a car parked along the beach with its [taillights] on (just past the metered parking) was about to pull out. I moved and the officer then sped past me. Had I seen him again — or another member of the force — I would have flagged HIM to point out this situation:
“I parked about 100 [yards] ahead (in front of the Holiday Inn),” she continued, “and got out to walk the sidewalk, hoping at least for a glimpse of open water. What I could see from the sidewalk were at least 50 people scattered along the beach — some playing with a beach ball, other adults sitting or strolling in small groups (some groups were as many as 5-6 adults). I saw beach-closure signs & barriers that had been pushed aside. I watched one group of 4 adults park their SUV (with FL plates) and simply walk around one of the barriers near the ramp nearest [St. Armands] Circle.”
The writer added, “I wished I were joining them and felt foolish depriving myself of a late day swim and walk. But I am law-abiding.
“If the [city] Commissioners are holding back opening Lido for some point of comparison with Siesta Key,” the woman continued, “the experiment has already been compromised. The closure needs to be either terminated so that Lido Beach is then as open as the other beaches in the County or its closure must be publicly justified — in detail — and then visibly enforced [emphasis in the email]. We can’t have it both ways.”
The woman did note Ahearn-Koch, “I agree that we still need to hold off allowing tents, umbrellas, and stationary congregations of beach-goers. However, open beaches are vital social safety valves and we should use them for our collective mental and physical health.”
Ahearn-Koch responded that night, writing, “Thank you for letting me know about the gatherings at Lido beach this evening.
“I have copied the City Manager and Staff on this email and am confident we will receive a response,” Ahearn-Koch added.
Replying to a News Leader request for information about the concerns, Genevieve Judge, the public information officer for the Sarasota Police Department, wrote in an April 30 email,
“I just spoke with our Deputy Chief and we have upped our patrol staffing on Lido Beach. As you know, Lido Beach is closed right now so we’ve added ATVs [all-terrain vehicles] to patrol on the sand and our Marine Patrol officers are on the water also patrolling the area in addition to the normal patrol officers who are assigned that zone on Lido and St. Armands.”
Judge added, “We have not issued any citations or arrested anyone to date for being on the beach. We are encouraging folks to follow CDC [U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] guidelines and reminding them that Lido Beach is closed right now.”
Taking a strong early stance
During the March 16 City Commission meeting, Mayor Ahearn-Koch advocated for strong responses to the novel coronavirus pandemic. However, at that time, City Attorney Robert Fournier cautioned against the city’s taking measures that were stricter than those implemented by Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Since then, Ahearn-Koch and City Manager Tom Barwin have continued to emphasize the need to keep residents as safe as possible.
On April 29, Ahearn-Koch received a letter from a Sarasota physician, Washington C. Hill, supporting those views.
“The decision to get back to the ‘new normal’ in the City of Sarasota is certainly a difficult one,” he wrote. “However, it has to be determined not by passion, protest or emails but by science, data and public health input. It takes courage and compassion to decide when to fully reopen our City and our beautiful beaches. If we look at public health data and science, it is clearly wise to fully re-open too late [than] too early. The consequences are severe and lives are at stake.”
Hill concluded his letter by writing, “We need you and your team.”