Nearly 2,900 people tested for COVID-19 in five days at site near Mall at University Town Center

Sarasota County continuing to stage reopening of services

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

This is the drive-through COVID-19 testing site near the Mall at University Town Center. Photo courtesy Florida Department of Health

A COVID-19 drive-through testing site for Sarasota and Manatee county residents, which state leaders opened on May 3 next to the Mall at University Town Center (UTC), has proven so popular that it has been reaching its capacity by early afternoon most days, Sarasota County Emergency Services Department staff has announced.

Although the initial schedule called for the site to be open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sara Nealeigh, media relations officer for Emergency Services, reported on May 4 that as of 2 p.m., 400 individuals had been tested, which was the daily maximum planned when the site opened.

However, Nealeigh noted in a later May 4 email that the total number of tests administered that day was 531. Altogether, she wrote in an email blast to the news media, the total number of tests for the first two days was 924.

As of 11 a.m., on May 5, 435 tests had been administered, Nealeigh reported that day. Thus, the site again was closed.

“The total for three days of site operation is 1,359 tests administered,” she added, with emphasis, on May 5.

In a presentation to the Sarasota County Commission on the morning of May 6, Rich Collins, director of the Emergency Services Department, pointed out that the testing capacity had been expanded that day to accommodate 750 people.

In an evening update on May 6, Nealeigh reported that the exact figure was 756. “The total for four days of site operation is 2,115 tests administered,” she added, emphasizing the numbers once again.

Then, on May 7, Nealeigh announced, “As of 2:30 p.m., the site has reached maximum capacity for today.” In a later email, she wrote that the final count for that day was 769. “The total for five days of site operation is 2,884 tests administered.”

Nealeigh added, “The site at the Mall at UTC will reopen at 9 a.m. Friday, May 8.”

A Sarasota County Fire Department unit is on standby at the state testing site. Photo courtesy Florida Department of Health via Sarasota County Emergency Services

Testing at the site is available for individuals over the age of 18, regardless of symptoms, state officials announced with the launch of the service. “Please limit passengers in the vehicle to those who are being tested, and no more than 5 people,” that alert stressed. “Individuals being tested will not be permitted to exit their vehicle. A prescription is not required and individuals do not need to be Sarasota or Manatee county residents to be tested,” the news release continued.

“The test used will be a nasal swab,” the release added. After the samples are collected, it explained, “they will be sent to a commercial lab for testing and results will be provided as soon as they are available.”

The location of the site is the parking lot east of Dillard’s, which stands at 140 University Town Center Drive in Sarasota, 34243.

During the May 6 County Commission meeting, Chuck Henry, the county Health Officer who also is director of the county’s Health and Human Services Department, noted that the Florida Department of Health in Sarasota County also is continuing to provide “pop-up testing sites” in various areas of the county.

A Health Department news release said, for example, that such a testing option was planned on May 6 at Heron Creek Middle School in North Port, while another one would be set up on May 7 at the Laurel Civic Association facility in Laurel.

As Henry emphasized to the commission, those sites allow people to walk up or ride their bikes, instead of having to drive up for testing.

However, with those pop-up options, persons must call to make an appointment, and only persons who believe they are experiencing COVID-19 symptoms will be tested, the Health Department has pointed out.

More information on the pop-up services is available at

Public response to reopened, county-operated beaches

During comments to the County Commission on May 6, County Administrator Jonathan Lewis talked about the second phase of the easing of beach restrictions, which began on May 4.

“It’s worked pretty well,” Lewis said. “You’re always going to have people who don’t work within the confines of the rest of the world.”

This is Siesta Key Public Beach on May 4, with county employees and Sheriffs Office personnel emphasizing social distancing. Image courtesy of Visit Sarasota County via Twitter

Lewis added, “The vast majority of our community” has adhered to U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines for social distancing.

He noted that the beaches in Charlotte, Manatee, Lee, Collier and Pinellas counties all re-opened on approximately the same schedule.

As of May 4, all county-operated beaches welcomed visitors for lounging, as well as exercise and fishing. The parking lots all were reopened. Lewis noted the significant staff effort that went into the latter activity.

When the News Leader asked Kaitlyn R. Perez, community affairs director for the Sheriff’s Office, for comments about department observations regarding the lifting of further restrictions at the beaches, she responded just before noon on May 6. Quoting Major Paul Richard, commander of the Law Enforcement Division, she wrote, “No significant issues. Everyone is doing their best to follow the rules and [people] are receptive if we have to remind them [of the CDC guidelines]. Some of our smaller beaches get a little more crowded than say Siesta Public Beach, but happy to report everything is going good.”

Next re-entry steps

Nicole Rissler, director of the county’s Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Department — and the chief of the Planning Section for county emergency management purposes — also offered an update to the commissioners on May 6. She noted that, over the past three weeks, she and her team had worked with all county department directors on identifying and creating a road map “for keeping the county running” and for staged re-entry. “There was a ton of time [spent] looking forward at what the new normal will be.”

She pointed out that tennis and pickleball courts at county parks reopened on May 2, and curbside pickup of materials at county libraries resumed on May 4.

Nicole Rissler addresses Siesta Key Condominium Council members on Feb. 19. File photo

“Monday was a very big day for us,” she continued, referring to the removal of barricades at the parking lots for county-operated beaches.

As of May 6, Rissler said, the members of the Radio Control Flyers clubs were allowed to use facilities once more at Pinelands and Rothenbach parks.

On May 7, beach concessions would reopen, she added, with Siesta at the top of the list. All of the concessions at county-operated beaches should be open by Monday, May 11, she pointed out.

(County staff later sent out a COVID-19 text alert saying the Venice Beach concession would open on May 8, followed by the North Jetty concession on May 11.)

Kayak vendors will be allowed to offer equipment rentals only as of May 9, Rissler continued. (“NO TOURS” will be permitted, the county’s May 6 COVID-19 text alert emphasized.)

Efforts still are underway to determine how best to handle playgrounds, dog parks and volleyball and basketball courts, Rissler said. And the Planning Section is hard at work on how July Fourth celebrations should be handled, she noted.

Commissioner Christian Ziegler told her that it seemed to him that dog parks were no different than the other large park spaces that have remained available to the public. “What’s the logic?” he asked, on keeping dog parks closed.

“We believe we would have limitations with [enforcing the prohibition on] congregating, or encouraging social distancing,” she replied. The dog parks provide much open space, she acknowledged, “but we have a lot of congregating that actually occurs in those dog parks as people want to socialize.”

These are more details about the reopening of county services. Image courtesy Sarasota County

As for volleyball and basketball: With those sports, Rissler continued, “A lot of people [are] very close to each other [so] social distancing is difficult.”

She added that the Strategic Planning Section members are trying to “work in a very thoughtful manner.”

“Everyone is going a little bit stir-crazy,” Ziegler said. “Kids are tough [to keep confined at home], but a big dog is just as tough, if not even tougher, to keep inside the house …”

County Administrator Lewis told Ziegler that he already had been talking with leaders in the Cities of Venice and North Port about dog parks. The latter municipality opened its dog park that morning, he noted. As a result, Lewis said he planned to talk with the city manager there that afternoon to learn what staff had observed.

This is the May 7 afternoon ‘dashboard’ provided by the Florida Department of Health, showing COVID-19 data for the state. Image courtesy Florida Department of Health
This is the May 7 afternoon ‘dashboard’ provided by the Florida Department of Health, showing COVID-19 data for Sarasota County. Image courtesy Florida Department of Health

At the end of the meeting, Commissioner Charles Hines told Lewis he hoped that, over the next few days, steps could be taken to re-open dog parks. “I think there’s some opportunity to do social distancing there.”

The commissioners also pointed out that Lewis had the authority to make decisions on park amenities without seeking their approval first.

Commissioner Alan Maio told Rissler, “Every time you open something up in a reasonable, programmed way, which is what we always professed … [that] reduces our emails every day.”

On one other point, Lewis won board approval to work out virtual meeting arrangements, through the end of June, for any county advisory boards that need to address what he characterized as “mission critical business.”

On May 7, the Planning Commission was scheduled to hold its first meeting since late February — via virtual meeting technology. The commissioners gave their go-ahead on that during a discussion last month.

Other facts and figures

In his May 6 update to the County Commission, Emergency Services Director Collins reported that Sarasota Memorial Hospital as of that date had only 44% of its Intensive Care Unit beds occupied, and 63% of all available hospital beds in Sarasota County were occupied.

The latest data for fire/EMS calls, Collins continued, showed that about 17% of the total were for responses to patients with flu-like or COVID-19 symptoms.

Additionally, two firefighters are in isolation, Collins said, because of potential exposure to the virus.