Although they voice continued concerns about COVID-19 transmission, Sarasota city commissioners agree to reopen Lido Key Beach

Vice Mayor Freeland Eddie casts ‘No’ vote, citing fears of virus’ spread by asymptomatic people

Editor’s note: The Sarasota News Leader is providing general reporting on the novel coronavirus to readers for free as a public service.

Lido Beach is quiet on March 21, the day it officially closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Image courtesy Sarasota County via the City of Sarasota Facebook page

After a review of the latest data available from the Florida Department of Health in Tallahassee — and information from the Sarasota County Health Officer — Sarasota city commissioners this week continued to voice concerns about the spread of the novel coronavirus, COVID-19.

However, only Vice Mayor Shelli Freeland Eddie voted against a motion put forth by Commissioner Willie Shaw that called for the reopening of Lido Beach to the public.

It had been closed since March 21, along with all other public beaches in the county.

Referring to crowds at Sarasota County’s Ted Sperling Park on South Lido the previous weekend, Shaw said he feared that, by keeping the city’s portion of Lido Beach closed, the commission would be creating greater risk for transmission of the virus.

Moreover, Commissioner Hagen Brody — who has been his board’s strongest advocate for allowing people back on Lido Beach — emphasized on May 18, “We’ve had 10 businesses go out of business on St. Armands Circle. The situation is dire out there for them.”

Circle businesses depend on visitors to the beach, Brody continued. “Their rents and other bills are extremely high. … It just makes zero sense to keep the beach closed with the rest of the community opening up.”
Brody was referring to Gov. Ron DeSantis’ decision to allow restaurants to move from 25% capacity indoors to 50% and for gyms to reopen at 50% capacity as of May 18.

Freeland Eddie countered his comments. “I don’t think you can justify making a bad decision because other people have made it.”

“Most of the transmission of the virus,” she added, “has been by asymptomatic people.” In opening up more of the community, Freeland Eddie said, the commissioners would be inviting yet more spread of COVID-19, unless they imposed restrictions.

Vice Mayor Shelli Freeland Eddie directs a question to a city staff member on Jan. 6. File image

“It’s going to get worse,” Freeland Eddie added of the pandemic, “and I pray that it doesn’t …” Still, she pointed out, the most recent state and county health data indicated that people must remain wary of continuing transmission of COVID-19.

“There’s still a danger out there,” Brody concurred with Freeland Eddie. “People need to take the same precautions” as they do in going to stores or the gym, he added. However, Brody said, “We have to let people make that decision.”

Commissioner Liz Alpert joined Brody in supporting Shaw’s motion. “With everything else being open,” Alpert said, “it would make no sense to continue to keep Lido Beach closed.”

Even Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch, who argued for the closing of public amenities well before DeSantis imposed restrictions, also concurred with Shaw, saying Lido’s continued closure has overshadowed more important considerations. She did agree with Freeland Eddie’s concerns, nonetheless, Ahearn-Koch added. “The virus is not gone; the risk is not gone. … We still have to be careful.”

As elected officials, Ahearn-Koch continued, all the commissioners should be pushing for “rapid, robust and reliable testing,” along with insisting on more effective tracing of the contacts people with COVID-19 have had, and antibody testing.

“If you don’t feel safe,” Ahearn-Koch said, “don’t go out.”

Yet, she continued, medical research has shown that the likelihood of infection is much higher in enclosed spaces than outdoors.

Since he made the motion — which Brody seconded — Shaw asked whether Freeland Eddie would like to propose a “friendly amendment” to impose some restrictions on people going to Lido Beach.

“I don’t think the case law allows us to be able to enforce [any],” Freeland Eddie replied.

Following the May 18 vote, city staff sent out an email blast with an announcement about the Lido decision. In that communication, City Manager Tom Barwin wrote, “Citizens are strongly advised to follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for safe social distancing in public to help stop the spread of COVID-19. City residents are also strongly urged to wear protective masks when leaving home under the City’s local public health emergency declaration.”

The staffing issue

One point the commissioners did not discuss during their May 18 meeting is the fact that Sarasota County provides the staff at Lido Beach.

After receiving an email early on May 19 from Nicole Rissler, director of the county’s Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources (PRNR) Department, about the City Commission decision, County Administrator Jonathan Lewis sent his own email to Barwin just after 8:30 a.m. that day.

County Administrator Jonathan Lewis. File photo

“Tom, we have received a phone call this morning after 8am claiming that the city has decided to reactivate the beach today,” Lewis wrote.

“As you are aware,” Lewis continued, “the county provides for staff at the beach and we have not received any official word from you after previously receiving very clear statements that the City wanted [Lido] closed.”

Lewis asked for clarification about the city decision, adding, “At that time we will begin looking at the issue.”

Then Lewis forwarded to the county commissioners copies of his and Rissler’s emails, writing, “We will begin working toward [resumption of staffing] when we receive confirmation.”

At 8:49 a.m., Barwin responded to Lewis, officially informing him that the City Commission had voted to reopen the beach.

Laying out the data

At the outset of the May 18 City Commission discussion, Barwin explained that Chuck Henry, the county Health Officer, was unable participate in the meeting, which was conducted via the Webex videoconferencing software.

However, Henry had sent Barwin an email on May 17, which reviewed key points of COVID-19 data, Barwin noted.

“Overall COVID-19 Testing for Sarasota County indicates a slight downward trend in the percent positive rate (currently at 6%). Down from 7% on 5/4/2020,” Henry wrote.

This is part of the May 17 chart showing COVID-19 data for Sarasota County, provided by the Florida Department of Health. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

The state-operated, drive-through testing site at the Mall at University Town Center (UTC) “has produced 52 positive tests of the 3,477 results visible in the laboratory portal,” Henry continued. “This is an overall 1.5% positive rate for the results visible from that site thus far.

“Of the 52 positives,” Henry noted, “24 are Sarasota County residents, 22 Manatee County, 3 Charlotte County and 1 Lee County. Two are non-Florida residents and there were 5 tests listed as invalid with the remaining 3,420 listed as negative.”

Further, Henry wrote, “The number of new positive tests in Sarasota County has averaged 61.5 per week over the last 7 weeks with the low week being 34 (4/20-4/27) and the high week 87 (5/10-5/17). This high of 87 included 50 cases identified that are associated with a single Long Term Care Facility.

“The number of new cases reported weekly in Sarasota County since [the state’s Phase 1 reopening] began on 5/4 is 45 for the 5/4-5/10 period and 87 for the 5/10-5/17 period,” Henry added.

“The overall trend for new cases in Sarasota County remains low and the trend is flat for new cases in the community when Long Term Care Facility cases are excluded,” he wrote. (See the related article in this issue.)

In his May 18 remarks to the city commissioners, Barwin also referenced the latest county “heat map” that he had seen, which was dated May 15. (The heat maps are created by county staff on the basis of Florida Department of Health in Sarasota County case data, indicated by zip code.)

This is the May 15 ‘heat map’ produced by Sarasota County staff in coordination with the Florida Department of Health in Sarasota County. Image courtesy Sarasota County
This is the May 18 ‘heat map’ produced by Sarasota County staff in coordination with the Florida Department of Health in Sarasota County. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Barwin further told the commissioners that he had talked with lifeguards who work at Lido. “They will have their hands full watching the water if and when we reopen,” Barwin said. Therefore, if the commissioners that evening made the decision to allow people back on Lido, Barwin continued, “We will attempt to deploy extra staff out over the weekend to try to remind people … that we should be practicing social distancing.”

May 25 is Memorial Day.

Over the previous weekend, Barwin said, Sarasota Police Department officers who checked on conditions at the county’s Sperling Park found what Barwin characterized as “mixed results,” with 65% to 75% of the beachgoers adhering to U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines to stay at least 6 feet apart and to gather in groups no larger than 10.

As he was wrapping up his remarks, Barwin added, “The data is probably the most frustrating element of this whole monitoring situation.”
Henry, the county Health Officer, had noted his frustration, too, Barwin said, about the unexpectedly long delays for getting results of the tests administered at the UTC site. That information is going directly to state Health Department staff, Barwin noted.

City leaders need to push for improvements with testing and greater availability of the results, Barwin added. People who have “any hint of a symptom,” and those who have been exposed to people with symptoms of COVID-19, need to be tested, Barwin said.