The closures will likely extend beyond the Fourth of July holiday weekend.
For weeks, town leaders have been watching a pair of developments that span not only the whole of Sarasota and Manatee counties, but also the state of Florida in general and the town’s beaches in particular.
As Florida, the counties and the town slowly reopened public facilities, restaurants, gyms, bars and more, the number of reported cases of COVID-19 began climbing. And town beaches, especially on weekends, seemed to rise in popularity.
Over Father's Day weekend, with the town's public parking sites packed, beachgoers sought solutions in neighborhoods, private parking lots and alongside roads – both legally and illegally. Residents say they left trash within sight of receptacles.
It was that experience that helped lead Town Manager Tom Harmer to issue an order this week, again closing the town’s public beach parking areas and portions of North Shore Road in advance of what was shaping up to be a busy Independence Day weekend. The order took effect Tuesday and is in force at least through July 13.
The town's beach access points first closed in March as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold and reopened in June.
While remaining open to visitors and residents with access to the sand, parking areas were barricaded or otherwise placed off limits.
“We’ve had some pretty significant internal discussion in trying to figure out, ‘how do we continue to protect our residents on the island?’” Harmer said. “We were very concerned about the past holiday weekend, the Father’s Day weekend. We felt like our beaches were overwhelmed with visitors, and it created some pretty significant challenges for us.”
Beaches to the north in Manatee County and on Lido Key and Siesta Key remain open, though all offer a lot more to the beachgoer than Longboat’s shoreline.
“Our beach accesses are not like Lido or Siesta or Coquina Beach,” Harmer said. “We don’t have infrastructure in place to support large crowds, and this past weekend, we took some measures to try and manage that, but going into the Fourth of July weekend, we just became very concerned with the vulnerability of our population, with the increasing positive test results and the limited infrastructure.”
Sarasota County has reported more than 1,400 cases of COVID-19, according to state figures, having set records in recent days for new cases. Manatee County stands at roughly twice that and Longboat Key itself hadn’t reported a case since early April, but added three from Manatee County in the last week.
“We just think on the island, our population is a bit different and our situation is a bit different,’’ Harmer said. “Our priority really is trying to look out for the residents here.”
Police Chief Pete Cumming said he’s never seen so many people visit the beach.
“In my opinion, people have been pent up. They’ve been locked up. They haven’t been able to get out,” Cumming said. “A lot of people are out of work, and they want to go to the beach. Right now, this is probably… the most people I’ve seen since I’ve been out here as a routine weekend sort of event.”
The crowds can be partially attributed to when Longboat Key reopened parking at its 12 public beach access points at the start of June. The public beach parking had been closed since March 21 to stop the spread of COVID-19.When they reopened, the summer beach season was in full swing.
North-end Longboat Key resident Maureen Merrigan said she’s seen parking problems, littering, illegal alcohol consumption and pets on the beach recently and for years.
“It’s heartbreaking,” Merrigan said. “It’s really discouraging because we’ve done a lot to try to keep it clean and have people try to respect the beach.”
Last Saturday, on a midday visit to all public parking points, there were very few open spaces. Cars cruised up and down North Shore Road, across Firehouse Road to Broadway Street and back, looking for a space. Private communities often posted their own No Parking signs at their entrances, often backed up with "Tow-away zone" signs mounted on traffic cones.
Cumming acknowledged the nearby areas that also are experiencing overcrowded beaches, including Anna Maria Island, Bradenton Beach, Coquina Beach, Lido Beach and Siesta Key Beach. Anna Maria recently reduced the numbers of neighborhood parking spots available, and Longboat is working its way through a residents-only arrangement in Longbeach Village, adjacent to the popular north end beaches.
However, many of the nearby beaches issue more expensive parking citations compared to Longboat Key’s fine of $30. And police generally can't issue parking tickets on private property.
“We’ve raised that issue before that we believe that the fines are too low to discourage people,” Merrigan said.
Cumming said the possibility of increasing the town’s parking fine would be more consistent with the other nearby communities, but town commissioners and the town manager would have to agree on a proposed increase.
“What we’re trying to do is reach some parity with some of the other island communities,” Cumming said.
Cumming said Longboat Key’s $30 fine has been in effect for “decades.” He said some people are willing to pay the $30 fine to park for a day at the beach, which is why the town “needs to review our current penalty.”
“The fine itself is just way out of date,” Cumming said.