Libraries to reopen on modified basis on June 15; county playgrounds again to be available for use on June 13

COVID-19 case count remains ‘low but steady,’ Sarasota County Health Officer tells commissioners

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

Gulf Gate Library is on Curtiss Avenue in Sarasota. Image from the Tech Insider website

Almost exactly three months after they were closed, all but one of Sarasota County’s public libraries will reopen on a modified schedule on June 15, Nicole Rissler, director of the county’s Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Department and chief of the county’s COVID-19 Planning Section, announced on June 3.

Except for the Osprey Library at Historic Spanish Point, all other libraries will be open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Thursday, Rissler told the county commissioners during their regular meeting this week. On Fridays and Saturdays, she noted, the schedule will be 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

The emphasis at each facility, Rissler said, will be on “grab and go services.” People may come in to pick up items they have reserved, or they must be “very specific about what they’re looking for.” The goal, she stressed, will be “to reduce the amount of time [the public is] in the libraries.”

Persons also will be allowed to use the public-access computers, she added.

As the novel coronavirus public health emergency continues, Rissler said, library staff members will keep the emphasis on virtual and online services, along with curbside pickup. Reference and information services will remain available via telephone, email and “a new chat function” Monday through Saturday, she said.

Programming via Zoom software and other virtual means “will continue through the summer,” Rissler pointed out. Further, the county’s annual Summer Reading Program “has moved to a virtual event,” she said; that began on June 1.

County Administrator Jonathan Lewis told the commissioners that during the first three weeks of the libraries’ curbside pickup service, “We had almost 19,000 items checked out.”

The libraries started that service on May 4.

His figure did not reflect the “substantial increase,” Lewis added, in the online and virtual checkout process.

During a project several years ago, county staff improved the playground at Turtle Beach Park. File photo

During her presentation, Rissler also noted that county playgrounds will reopen on Saturday, June 13. “We will highly encourage, through signage and social media, that social distancing is still very important,” she told the board members. Yet, she acknowledged, “We know that’s difficult with kids.”

Further, children will be asked to wash their hands thoroughly or use hand sanitizer before and after playground use, she said. Staff also will stress that parents should not allow their children to congregate, “which is probably an oxymoron for playgrounds,” she added.

On another point, Rissler noted that late fees for utility payments and utility service shutoffs will be suspended through Friday, July 31. County staff first implemented the waiver of utility shutoffs on March 18.

Continuing efforts to control the virus

During his June 3 update to the commissioners, county Health Officer Chuck Henry pointed out that the number of new COVID-19 cases identified in the county “continues to be low but steady.”

This is the statewide data published by the Florida Department of Health on June 3. Image courtesy Florida Department of Health
This is the COVID-19 report for Sarasota County as of the morning of June 3. Image courtesy Florida Department of Health

In its morning release of data on June 3, the Florida Department of Health in Tallahassee reported that Sarasota County’s total case count had climbed to 629, with 80 deaths tallied.

The bar graph accompanying the data noted that 14 new cases were identified on May 27, followed by 11 on May 28. By May 31, the figure was down to four, but on June 1, it was back up again, to seven.

Henry told the commissioners that the average number of COVID-19 cases in the county has been averaging from zero to 10 per day. “This is a good thing,” he said. “This is a number we can manage, from a health system standpoint.”

“We’ll continue to watch that number,” he added. “Should it begin to creep up, of course, we’ll let people know.”

The focus of the Florida Department of Health in Sarasota County remains on “identifying testing capabilities,” Henry continued. The goal is to try to make certain that anyone who feels sick has the ability to get a test.

Health Department staff also continues its work on the tracing of contacts of everyone diagnosed with the virus, Henry said, as those people should be tested, too.

Drive-through testing remains available next to the Mall at University Town Center, he noted, and — for walk-ups and those on bicycles — at the Robert L. Taylor Community Complex, located at 1845 34th St. in North Sarasota. Additionally, the Health Department is continuing to offer “pop-up testing” opportunities in a variety of areas of the county, Henry noted.

This is the June 3 ‘heat map’ produced by Sarasota County staff in collaboration with the Florida Department of Health in Sarasota County. It shows the prevalence of new COVID-19 cases, by zip code, for the previous 14 days. Image courtesy Sarasota County

“We feel comfortable at this point we have the staff needed to do what’s required in our community,” he told the commissioners.

“I do want to stress again social distancing for our community, wearing of cloth masks when you’re out in the public and careful attention to hand-washing …” Henry emphasized that persons who have been outside their homes need to pursue “vigorous” hand-washing for 20 seconds, or use of hand sanitizer if they are unable to wash their hands. “Those simple acts really continue to allow us to open up the community,” he said, referring to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines.

Such actions, he said, are every bit as important as testing. “I just cannot stress that enough. They keep the community safe.”

‘A behind-the-scenes’ experience

At the outset of the board meeting this week, Commissioner Christian Ziegler explained that he and his family have been able to experience first-hand how the Health Department staff operates in efforts to stop the spread of the virus.

Commissioner Christian Ziegler. Photo courtesy Sarasota County

“I have come in contact with an individual that has COVID,” Ziegler said via remote meeting software. “I was notified by the county Health Department. They recommended a 14-day quarantine. [That] started a couple of days ago.”
Ziegler added, “It’s been kind of interesting to see the process from behind the scenes.”

“Everyone’s healthy on my end,” he continued. Nonetheless, he emphasized, he, his wife and their three children “have to stay locked down for 14 days.”

He told his colleagues that he appreciated the efforts of staff that had enabled him to participate in the meeting from his home.

“Best wishes to you and Bridget and the kids,” Chair Michael Moran told Ziegler.

Later doing the meeting, Ziegler did figuratively disappear from the session. Moran called for a break, to ensure Ziegler could get back online. Afterward, Ziegler explained that a power outage in his neighborhood had necessitated his leaving his computer and having to rely on his cell phone to continue his participation in the discussions.