City of Sarasota closes park facilities through at least March 31 in effort to try to prevent spread of COVID-19

April 6 City Commission meeting canceled, along with all city advisory board and council meetings, including those of Planning Board

Payne Park’s trails still will be accessible to the public. News Leader photo

During approximately 90 minutes of discussion on March 16, the Sarasota city commissioners agreed that staff should close city parks — except for outdoor areas people can use individually or with immediate family members — and await guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state leaders before closing bars and restaurants. (See the related article in this issue.)

The parks that will be closed from March 18 at least through March 31 are Arlington Park and Aquatic Complex, Bobby Jones Golf Club, Lido Beach Pool, the Payne Park Tennis Center, the Payne Park Skate Park and the Robert L. Taylor Community Complex.

As March 31 approaches, City Manager Tom Barwin explained, staff will review the situation to determine whether the closings need to be extended.

Additionally, the commissioners agreed with Barwin’s recommendation to cancel all meetings of advisory boards and councils — including the Planning Board and the city’s Development Review Committee — for the next 30 days.

Further, the commissioners canceled their regular meeting on April 6 and asked city staff — including City Attorney Robert Fournier — to research the logistics, expense and legal options relating to the potential for virtual meetings.

This section of the City of Sarasota Upcoming Events webpage shows the cancellation notices. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

No changes will be implemented in regard to the collections of solid waste, recyclables and yard waste, Barwin pointed out on March 16.

City staff also has agreed not to shut off water to any delinquent customers for the next 30 days, Barwin told the commissioners. Customers are encouraged to pay their bills online or to use the drop-off box outside the Utilities Billing Office, which is located at 1761 12th St., as that office has been closed, a city news release noted. Anyone with questions may call that office at 263-6261 or email its staff at utilitybill@sarasotagov.com.

With Commissioner Willie Shaw participating in the March 16 meeting via telephone, Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch and City Auditor and Clerk Shayla Griggs noted at the outset that the agenda had been revised so the board members could conclude the session that afternoon. Thus, the evening portion of the meeting was eliminated.

Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch. Filer photo

Ahearn-Koch also advised speakers who addressed the commission not to sit next to each other as they faced the dais, in keeping with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommendations to practice “social distancing.”

Further, Barwin emphasized that the CDC and the Florida Department of Health had advised that no social gatherings of more than 50 people should take place. The limit should be 10 in one place when “vulnerable or elderly” people are involved, he added, because of their higher risk of contracting the novel coronavirus, COVID-19.

In discussing the potential closing of indoor park facilities and pools, Barwin also pointed out, “We’ve had some troubles with maintaining our restrooms.” One contractor had ceased working, he said, and supplies “have been disappearing.”

In response to a question from Vice Mayor Shelli Freeland Eddie, Deputy City Manager Marlon Brown said Barwin was referring to “toilet paper and soap.”

“You’re kidding me,” Freeland Eddie replied.

“The beaches are open,” Barwin continued. When he visited Lido Beach on Sunday, March 15, he said, he saw that groups appeared to be making an effort to sit 10 feet apart.

“Our recommendation is to leave the playgrounds open,” as well, he said, as “youth and children are not being typically impacted [by COVID-19]. … People need to get out, is our feeling, and govern themselves [according to CDC guidelines].”

Freeland Eddie did voice concern about problems parents will have to contend with in association with park facility closings. “There is a chronic shortage of childcare for people who have to go back to work the next week.” She was referring to the fact that the Sarasota County School District had scheduled spring break for this week, but in accord with state guidelines announced on March 13, schools will be closed at least through March 27.

Barwin pointed out that 26 children are enrolled in a spring break camp at Arlington Park. He and other staff members would do their best in addressing that situation, Barwin said, as the camp is a city function. “I would like to see if we can complete the camp … That’s an obligation we’ve had with folks.”

A range of reactions

City Commissioner Hagen Brody. File photo

“My mindset is the next two, four to six weeks or so is so critical,” Commissioner Hagen Brody told his colleagues, in terms of trying to control the spread of the coronavirus. “My tendency in this situation is to err on the side of caution.”

“I think we need to be as proactive as possible,” Mayor Ahearn-Koch added. The COVID-19 situation, she said, “changes pretty much every minute.”

Moreover, Ahearn-Koch urged her fellow commissioners to talk with elected leaders they know in the region, to encourage them to take the same steps the City of Sarasota would be taking, in a unified effort to try to control the spread of the virus.

Brody was the first to suggest that Barwin, as city manager, should be given the flexibility “as much as possible at this time,” to implement restrictions based on federal and state guidelines.

“I agree with Commissioner Brody in terms of flexibility,” Freeland Eddie said. However, she urged city administrative staff to focus on fairness “across the board. … Recreation is the only thing that we have in the wake of the virus.”

Barwin responded that city staff members are encouraging members of the public to let them know about any unique circumstances in regard to private gatherings that might need to be addressed.

Further, City Attorney Robert Fournier said staff would check on all the agreements the city has with private entities operating out of city parks. Formal notice of their necessity to close could be given to them, he said, based on the emergency situation. However, he added, “We’ll try to work something out voluntarily, I think, at first.”

Barwin did note that he believed the City of Sarasota was the first municipality in the state to declare a public health emergency.

The potential for virtual meetings

Following their decisions about city parks, the commissioners turned to the potential for holding their own upcoming meetings on a virtual basis, perhaps through a software program called Zoom.

Virtual local government workshops are allowed under the state Sunshine Laws, City Attorney Fournier pointed out. However, state regulations call for a physical quorum to be present for a regular meeting. In the City Commission’s case, he pointed out, that would necessitate the presence of three of the five members.

Nonetheless, he continued, a lot of discussion has been taking place among local government attorneys about how best to deal with the COVID-19 threat. The Florida Department of Health, he said, has the statutory authority “to take some action that might help out on [the issue of virtual meetings].”

This is a banner on the Zoom virtual meeting webpage. Image from the Zoom website

The video conferencing platform Zoom has been mentioned, he said, as it would allow public participation in meetings, and such participation is required by the state.

He recommended that any of the commissioners with contacts in state government offer their support to those officials for the Florida Department of Health to use its authority to implement guidelines for virtual meetings.

In the meantime, City Auditor and Clerk Griggs said she and her staff would work with the city’s Information Technology staff to determine whether Zoom would be usable for the City of Sarasota.

Commissioner Liz Alpert pointed out that she attends a monthly meeting via Zoom, so she felt that would be a good option.

Among the few light moments of the March 16 meeting came when Vice Mayor Freeland Eddie asked what had been scheduled for the April 6 regular meeting, since the board was canceling that.

“About 40 items,” Deputy City Manager Brown responded, without cracking a smile. He added that the meeting surely would have gone on “till 2 in the morning.”

“There will be a day of reckoning,” Barwin said, prompting laughter among the commissioners.

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