Town has remained consistent on keeping beach parking, other facilities closed though changes could be coming soon, officials say.
Markos Markosov spent Thursday afternoon watching his daughter play tennis on the public courts at Bayfront Park.
Markosov said the two drove to Longboat Key from Bradenton, and were surprised the town’s public beach parking was closed. Likewise, the public restrooms and indoor facilities at the park were off limits.
“Sometimes, my relatives come and rent a condo here and I was surprised they closed,” Markosov said. “It’s just unusual.”
The parking at Longboat Key’s 12 public beach access points has remained closed since the end of June because of concerns related to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Markosov said it was inconvenient that Bayfront Park’s public bathroom remain closed too, suggesting the town could pay someone to maintain its sanitation for it to reopen.
The town facilities to the public, the public restrooms Joan M. Durante Park and the town’s Bayfront Park Recreation Center also remained closed as part of the Town Manager Tom Harmer’s latest executive order. Harmer is set to re-evaluate his latest executive order on or before Sept. 22.
“I do anticipate that we will be looking to reopen the beach access parking sometime over the next few weeks,” Harmer said. “We clearly wanted to wait until after Labor Day weekend and a few weeks beyond that, as it also relates to the start at school both in Manatee and in Sarasota.”
Harmer has said several times he considers the town's older demographics and the style of beaches compared to some of the nearby areas in his decision making.
Among the town’s nearly 7,000 full-time residents, 69% are older than 65. State health departments throughout the country and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have acknowledged older people and people with underlying health issues tend to be more at risk to COVID-19.
Also, nearby public beaches such as Siesta Key beach or Coquina Beach are larger and can accommodate more people.
Before June 30, the town’s public beach parking had been open in June. When the pandemic first took hold, the town's public beach parking had closed from March 21-May 31.
“It’s not so many people on the beach on the public,” Markosov said. “It’s parking for what, for how many cars there? I don’t see a reason to be closed.
“And the older populations, they don’t use the public beach. The live in the condos.”
The town of Longboat Key never closed the beach itself, just its public parking. Many people who live on the island can access the beach by walking.
Turtle Coffee Bar at 3172 Gulf of Mexico Drive is right across the street from one of the closed public beach access points. The establishment’s owner Heather Gaus said she’s had to tell beachgoers they can’t park in Turtle Coffee’s lot.
“I went out and cleaned up diapers, trash,” Gaus said. “I mean it’s a little inconvenient, especially [having to] pick up after people, but other than that…I’m pretty sure…I don’t know. After Labor Day, there’s not that many people on the island.”
Whitney’s owner David Benstock said he had a similar experience, telling beachgoers they couldn’t park in his restaurant’s lot to go to the beach on Labor Day.
Beaches to the north in Manatee County are open, along with beaches to the south — Lido Key and Siesta Key.
“I think it’s kind of silly that [the public beach parking at] Longboat Key wouldn’t be open, but at the same time, probably for the people that live here, it’s probably nice,” Benstock said.
Gaus and Benstock said closing public beach parking hasn’t hurt their businesses too much. Both establishments have private parking.
“Longboat Key is kind of a special place like that, that even though it’s closed it’s probably one of the beaches that makes the people in Longboat Key happy,” Benstock said. “If you live in Longboat Key, they like a quiet town. They don’t really like being distributed, so it kind of works out.”
Gaus said she’s had customers drive from Tampa and Orlando to visit the town’s public beach, only to find out they can’t legally park there.
“They get here and there’s no parking,” Gaus said. “Maybe you send them up to Coquina, but Coquina is full. So then they get aggravated with us and I’m like, ‘I can’t help it.’”
Harmer and staff have told the Longboat Observer they will continue to monitor the data with the return of schools and after the Labor Day holiday weekend. Manatee County schools began on Aug. 17 and Sarasota County Schools started on Aug. 31.
Data from the Florida Department of Health shows Longboat Key’s 34228 ZIP code has 30 cases in Manatee County, which is an increase of three cases in the last few weeks. The Sarasota County side of the island has fewer than five cases, which has remained unchanged for months.