On split vote, Sarasota city commissioners agree to keep Lido Beach closed at least until May 18, when they hold next regular meeting

Mayor, vice mayor and Commissioner Shaw agree on need to examine results of widespread COVID-19 testing that began in county on May 3

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

The Sarasota city commissioners, along with City Manager Tom Barwin (middle of bottom row), Deputy City Manager Marlon Brown (second from left on second row), City Attorney Robert Fournier (far right on second row) and City Auditor and Clerk Shayla Griggs (top left), participate in the May 4 meeting virtually. News Leader image

On a 3-2 vote this week, the Sarasota city commissioners agreed to wait until their next regular meeting on May 18 to decide whether to reopen Lido Beach.

They asked staff to ensure that they would have results that day of the more widespread COVID-19 testing that began on May 3 near the Mall at University Town Center. Then, they agreed, they should be able to determine the trend regarding contraction of the virus in the city and county.

Vice Mayor Shelli Freeland Eddie made that motion, and Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch seconded it. Commissioner Willie Shaw joined them in the majority.

Just before that May 4 vote, Commissioner Hagen Brody made a motion that called for reopening Lido immediately. Commissioner Liz Alpert seconded it. Mirroring the subsequent vote, only Brody and Alpert supported that motion.

It took almost exactly an hour of discussion before the voting began.

When Ahearn-Koch first called for comments on the issue, Alpert pointed out, “Since the county beaches are open, I don’t think it makes a lot of sense for the city to continue having [Lido Beach] closed.”

On May 4, all parking lots again opened at county-operated beaches, and members of the public were welcome to venture once more onto the shoreline with coolers, towels and canopies. However, in announcing that decision, County Administrator Jonathan Lewis made clear that the leaders of municipalities with beaches could make their own decisions.

Obviously,” Alpert added, “we would want everyone to practice social distancing on the beach.”

She was referring to U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines that continue to call for people to stay at least 6 feet apart from those who are not members of their households and to gather in groups no larger than 10.

Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch makes a point on May 4. News Leader image

When Ahearn-Koch asked whether she supported “sitting and sunbathing,’” in accord with the county policy, Alpert replied, “I think full-on use.” If exercise only were allowed, Alpert asked, “What if you want to sit down for a few minutes?”

“I, too, would support opening the beach and the parking at this point in time … as long as we adhere to CDC guidelines,”

Shaw said, “We are a tourist area,” he added, so people coming into the county likely will head to the beaches.

One reason he and his colleagues agreed early on to close Lido Beach, as well as city boat ramps and tennis courts, Brody said, was concern about the “cascading effect of the beaches around us,” with spring break season still underway. “We’re into May now. Everyone’s gone home and our residents have just been taking this extremely serious,” he added of the COVID-19 pandemic. “They have all at this point been educated about the risks.”
Moreover, he pointed out, the beaches “are really a part of who we are.”

However, Freeland Eddie told her colleagues, “I still remain concerned. We have not had the level of testing … that we need in order to be certain” that the virus is not continuing to spread at a high rate in the community.

Further, she emphasized, many people who have COVID-19 are asymptomatic. People could pick up the virus at the beach and spread it to others, she added, without any knowledge that they were doing so.

Shaw told his colleagues that his brother and sister-in-law, living in the same household, both contracted the virus. His brother eventually needed a ventilator before he began improving, Shaw continued, but his sister-in-law “never saw any of the symptoms.”

Widespread testing just began for county residents on Sunday, Freeland Eddie and Ahearn-Koch also noted. On May 3, state agencies collaborated to set up a facility next to Dillard’s east parking lot at the Mall at University Town Center.

Chuck Henry, the county Health Officer, said results should start coming back within 24 to 36 hours, Ahearn-Koch added.

Freeland Eddie also emphasized the fact that city leaders are not requiring the use of face masks for people out in public, as a means of preventing the transmission of COVID-19.

“Definitely, I would like to see us require masking in public,” Shaw said later.

For that matter, Freeland Eddie noted, “Why are we meeting virtually? Perfect example. We’re being cautious.”

The May 4 City Commission meeting was the first since the pandemic began during which all the board members and city administrative staff participated via virtual meeting software called Webex.

“I just think we need to continue to be cautious a little bit longer,” Freeland Eddie added.

On the last Sunday in April, Shaw pointed out, he drove over to Lido and St. Armands keys, where he saw people out surfing and “cars parked everywhere.” No city employees, including police officers, told the surfers to leave, he added.

Over the previous weekend, Freeland Eddie said, she drove over to Lido and Siesta Key. People had parked just beyond the barricades set up to keep the parking lots closed, she pointed out. “There’s just no respect for government trying to do what we can to keep people safe because people’s perspective is ‘I can do what I want to do,’” she continued, “and our job is to protect all of those individuals.”

This is the May 4 morning ‘dashboard’ report of COVID-19 cases in Sarasota County, reflecting data compiled by the Florida Department of Health. Image courtesy Florida Department of Health
This is the May 5 evening ‘dashboard’ report of COVID-19 cases in Sarasota County, reflecting data compiled by the Florida Department of Health. Image courtesy Florida Department of Health

Continuing the debate

“We have so much more to this pandemic than we know of right now,” Shaw told his colleagues as the discussion continued. For example, he said, eight weeks ago, he heard, “‘Black folk don’t die.’ Yes, they do! So let’s get real.”

As of that day, he continued, 377 COVID-19 cases had been reported in Sarasota County. Twenty percent of them were in three zip codes in the city of Sarasota, he stressed, as shown in the “heat map” produced on almost a daily basis by the Florida Department of Health in Sarasota County and county staff.

Ahearn-Koch concurred with Shaw about those figures being a point of concern. The city had 125 of the 385 total cases that had been identified in the county, according to the latest data she had seen, she emphasized. “That’s a third.”

“Nobody’s saying that there’s not still a serious danger out there,” Commissioner Brody responded.

This is the May 4 ‘heat map,’ which City Manager Tom Barwin showed the commissioners during their meeting. Image courtesy Sarasota County

However, physicians with whom he had spoken, he continued, have said that the risk of contracting the virus is far smaller when a person is outside, compared to when a person is indoors.

“I have been pretty cautious from the get-go,” Ahearn-Koch reminded her colleagues. She has spent much time researching the virus and the resulting data, she added.

Then Ahearn-Koch noted the White House/CDC guidelines that had been proposed for states and regions considering reopening after safe-at-home restrictions were imposed. “We absolutely do not meet [the three criteria].”

Those are a downward trajectory of influenza-like and Covid-19- illnesses reported within a 14-day period; a downward trajectory of documented cases within a 14-day period or a downward trajectory of positive tests as a percent of total tests within a 14-day period; and, in hospitals, treatment of all patients without crisis care, along with “robust testing” for at-risk healthcare workers.

These are the White House/CDC criteria proposed for state and regional reopening amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Image courtesy of the White House

Ahearn-Koch added that she had seen numerous photos of people on Siesta Public Beach not adhering to CDC guidelines. “I worry about a resurgence [of positive cases].”

Commissioner Brody contended that the city had met the criteria Ahearn-Koch had cited.

Some beaches that were opened in California have been closed again, she pointed out, because of an increase in cases. “I think that the biggest mistake we could make is opening back up the things we have control over too quickly.”

Shaw pointed out that he had not voiced a date when he wanted to see Lido reopened.

Commissioner Alpert suggested May 9, after the current city declaration of a public health emergency ends.

Asked for his thoughts, City Manager Tom Barwin talked of the emergency protocol calling for all local governments in a region to strive to work together. “The beaches around us have reopened,” he said. If the city did not reopen Lido reasonably soon, he continued, that would put more pressure on the other beaches and force city residents who wanted a beach experience to go to other parts of the county shoreline.

“A lot of the seasonal residents are gone,” Barwin added. In fact, he noted, he had checked in recently with the management at the Hyatt Regency in downtown Sarasota. “[It] had only eight rooms booked.”

City Manager Tom Barwin offers comments on May 4. News Leader image

Further, “I don’t know how much we can put on the Police Department” and other city departments, in terms of continuing to require enforcement of the CDC guidelines, Barwin told the commissioners. “In the end, we have to start writing tickets.”

Some communities have law enforcement officers arresting people, Barwin added. “I don’t know that we really want to flirt with going there.”

Freeland Eddie finally suggested extending the emergency order until May 15 and tracking the rate of positive tests through that date. “We need to be on those numbers like nobody’s business.”

Just before the final vote, Freeland Eddie asked that Barwin ensure that the commission’s May 18 agenda would include a discussion of the testing results for the city and county. Then, she said, the board members could decide how best to proceed in regard to Lido.