Forty-four days of silent sand ends
America’s best beaches are once again crowded
I live in Treasure Island, Florida. For those of you who aren’t familiar with this whimsically-named town, it’s a small barrier island located in Pinellas County, Florida, which is commonly referred to as the St. Pete-Clearwater area.
You have to cross a causeway bridge to get onto the main stretch of Treasure Island, and a pirate standing over a treasure chest of oranges greets you as you drive along tree-lined Central Avenue. It’s idyllic and quiet most of the time unless one of our annual events are taking place like Sanding Ovations or the kite festival.
Our beaches are beautiful, too. The St. Pete-Clearwater area as a whole is home to some of the country’s best and most popular stretches of sand according to U.S. News, HGTV, Tripadvisor, and a slew of other travel-related websites.
Travelers come from far and wide to sun themselves at Clearwater Beach or take in the twilight wonders of Sunset Beach. Honeymoon Island State Park and Fort De Soto Park are rarely empty. Treasure Island, while small compared to St. Petersburg and Clearwater, is also a popular destination for tourists who favor sandy scenes.
Even when the COVID-19 pandemic broke out in early March, visits to St. Pete-Clearwater didn’t slow down. Tourism and hospitality is the main industry that fuels the economy of Pinellas County, and the early months of the year are prime for tourists to travel to the beaches lining the Gulf Coast of Central Florida. Understandably, people want to escape the cold weather up north, and students like to spend their Spring Break on warm sandy beaches.
Clearwater Beach, easily the most popular beach in the county, made global headlines in mid-March thanks to the hoards of Spring Breakers who crowded the sand and generally ignored warnings from healthcare officials about COVID-19. The backlash was swift and brutal on the internet, and Pinellas County officials ordered the beaches closed on March 20 at 11:59 PM.
For the most part, people generally listened to closure orders for the beaches. Here on Treasure Island, we had never seen our beach so consistently empty. Sure there were occasionally a few desperate souls who would sprint from the beach walk to the wet sand along the shoreline with their paddleboards. Other than that, the beaches in the area gave off a post-hurricane vibe: sad, quiet, and barren.
But as of Monday, May 4, six weeks after the closure order, Pinellas County beaches are once again open. Beach parking lot barriers were removed and local law enforcement could be seen patrolling along the sand throughout the week, reminding beachgoers to follow social distancing guidelines. Beach attendance looked nothing out of the ordinary Monday through Friday when most people were working or trying to maintain something that vaguely resembles a normal routine.
Yesterday, however, was a different story entirely. It was the first Saturday since March that the beaches would be open and the forecast for the day predicted sunny skies and temperatures ideal for frolicking along the sand.
By ten o'clock on the morning of May 9, many of the beach parking lots were full and the beaches had reached capacity per social distancing guidelines. The Twitter account for the Pinellas County Sheriff was just a continuous thread of closure updates (kudos to whoever was running that account because I can only imagine what a depressing slog that was) and reminders to check the beach capacity webpage the Sheriff’s Office had developed.
The entrance to the 104th Avenue parking lot for Treasure Island Beach was blocked by an SUV from the Sheriff’s office and the beach itself was the fullest we had ever seen it outside of festivals. People crowded the beach walk as we rode our bikes and umbrellas dotted the sand hundreds of feet back from the waterfront. Every single parking spot east of Gulf Boulevard was taken and more vehicles desperately circled like vultures nearby, waiting for a space to free up.
My mother is an avid user of the app Nextdoor. She enjoys reading many of the more outlandish postings aloud to me and my father, many of them involving neighbors acting anything but neighborly.
Her readings yesterday consisted mostly of residents expressing their disappointment in the behavior of beachgoers. Homeowners who live near Sunset Beach had to deal with out-of-town visitors (your license plate gives you away, friends) parking directly on their lawns once designated spots by the public beach filled up.
Some users noted the distinct lack of regard for social distancing rules shown by groups that had more than ten people in them. One woman shared that when she came home, some beachgoers were standing in her yard with their paddleboards.
Even hours later around five o’clock—when many visitors are typically leaving the beaches—parking lots were still mostly full and people could be seen making the trek towards the sand holding towels and beach chairs. The siren song of the beach seemingly remained strong from dawn to dusk, a global pandemic be damned.
Don’t get me wrong, Pinellas County residents want the beaches open. We want to be able to escape the monotony of isolation and venture outside. We also want to support the owners and employees of local businesses, restaurants, and resorts who rely heavily on tourism for financial success, but not at the expense of public health and common decency.
If you’re going to pay the beaches of Pinellas County a visit, please follow social distancing guidelines and listen to local law enforcement. Plan ahead and check the beach capacity tool on the Sheriff’s website before hitting the sand. Heading to the grocery store or another local establishment? Consider wearing a facemask, especially if you’re visiting from out of town. Yes, we are all sick of being quarantined and dealing with this new normal, but it’s just that, the new normal.
And if we want to survive this new normal with our sanity and faith in humanity intact, we all need to make the effort to take better care of each other, whether we’re neighbors or not.