Sarasota city and county leaders making array of coronavirus decisions, as federal and state guidelines have changed over the past week

Updates offered daily, with number of cases locally and statewide climbing

Sarasota City Hall is on First Street in downtown Sarasota. File photo

On March 13, Sarasota City Manager Tom Barwin declared a citywide public health emergency, joining Sarasota County leaders in strongly advising the cancellation of any gatherings of 250 or more people on or before March 20.

“This includes all gatherings managed, permitted or supported by City staff,” a city news release said.

Barwin also pointed out that new special events would not be permitted by city staff “until further notice.”

“City buildings and operations remain open for business,” Barwin wrote in his March 13 newsletter.

The City of Sarasota’s announcement explained that the city’s public health emergency was declared “[t]o protect the health and safety of the community and position the City to qualify for possible state or federal funds for losses associated with COVID-19 …”

Barwin had consulted with Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch that morning, the news release said.

Under the guidelines of the City Charter, the release explained, “an emergency declaration must be re-evaluated on a week-to-week basis.”

On March 18, city staff announced that the public health emergency had been extended through Friday, March 27.

This is part of the First Extension of the Declaration of Public Health Emergency that the City of Sarasota issued on March 19. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

On March 15, County Administrator Jonathan Lewis signed a Declaration of a State of Emergency, as well, allowing the county to “make available all public resources necessary to mitigate the potential transmission of COVID-19 pursuant to the Sarasota County Comprehensive Emergency Management Plan.” The state of emergency would remain in effect for seven days, the formal document said.

The county action came just a day before President Donald Trump, at the recommendation of public health officials, urged that gatherings be limited to 10 people.

In reporting Trump’s remarks, Politico wrote, “The new guidelines come on the heels of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance [March 15] that recommended the cancellation and postponement of gatherings of 50 people or more for the next eight weeks.”

County park facilities and libraries closed

County Administrator Lewis’ declaration served as a figurative line of demarcation between the decisions he had announced just two days earlier about county operations and subsequent, stiffer measures.

On March 12, Sarasota County staff issued a notice calling off all functions scheduled at county facilities for the next 30 days, if those events were expected to draw 250 or more people. That threshold for gatherings was prompted by comments Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, made during a congressional hearing on March 11.

Among the events affected by the county directive was the Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce’s annual Children’s Easter Party and Egg Hunt, which has been held at the county’s Turtle Beach Park since 2017. The event is a decades-old tradition that typically drew more than 100 youngsters.

County Administrator Jonathan Lewis. Photo courtesy Sarasota County

“We’re doing very, very liberal refund policies,” County Administrator Lewis pointed out during a March 13 press conference about actions related to the COVID-19 crisis.

Entities that have exclusive agreements involving county-owned properties — such as Benderson Park, Ed Smith Stadium in Sarasota and CoolToday Park in North Port — were going to make their own decisions about whether to continue with events, he added that day. “This is a very dynamic situation.”

The Suncoast Aquatic Nature Center Associates (SANCA) oversees events and operations at Benderson Park. On March 16, its website said that the U.S. Olympic rowing trials had been postponed by USRowing and the U.S. Olympic Committee. Additionally, the ITU World Cup Triathlon had been postponed. “All park programs are on regular schedule, except for NBP Survivors In Sync, whose practices have been suspended,” the website noted.

On March 12, Major League Baseball cancelled the rest of its Spring Training season, so no more Baltimore Orioles or Atlanta Braves games would be conducted this year at the two county stadiums.

In a March 16 email responding to The Sarasota News Leader questions, Media Relations Officer Drew Winchester noted that county park facilities — such as recreation centers and the Venice Community Center in Venice — “are closed or closing.”

In addition, “all library events/programs are canceled, equating to about 500 events,” Winchester wrote.

“Libraries will remain open, with the exception of the Osprey location, because Spanish Point is closing [March 17].”

Advisory board/council meetings were canceled for this week, he continued.

Yet, just one day later — on March 17 — Winchester announced via email that all libraries would close that day at 5 p.m. and remain closed through Sunday, April 12. “All due dates for physical materials are pushed back to Monday, April 13th, and staff is working on offering curbside pick-up for items placed on hold through the catalog,” he added. “As always, our digital library is open 24/7 and library cardholders can get access to download books, magazines, and stream movies, TV and music.”

On March 16, County Administrator Lewis had notified the county commissioners of the following via email: “All of our park indoor facilities are closed. We are also not programming any of our outdoor spaces.”

On March 18, Sarasota County issued a news release saying it would be waiving water service shut-offs through April 13 for non-payment of utilities bills. That action also is part of the county’s ongoing response to COVID-19, the release explained.

Further, county staff is trying to maintain a list of closures and cancellations of county-sponsored events and facilities. To read the list, visit this link: https://www.scgov.net/government/health-and-human-services/covid-19-coronavirus.

Additionally, on the afternoon of March 17, staff launched a text alert system for members of the public who would like updates on closures and cancellations. Anyone who wishing to receive the alerts should text SRQCOVID19 to 888-777.

As of early afternoon on March 19, in response to a News Leader question, Media Relations Officer Brianne Grant reported that the county’s Contact Center had received 714 calls associated with COVID-19 and 16 emails.

Image courtesy Sarasota County

As another precaution, Lewis noted in his March 16 email, “We have placed signs at our facilities, on our website, and via social media encouraging people not to come in the building if they’re sick and instead engaging us through either 861-5000 or our website so we can continue to provide them service.”

(The phone number connects a person to the county’s Contact Center, whose staff can assist the public with questions and concerns.)

During the March 13 press conference, Lewis said staff was evaluating whether to hold the regular County Commission meeting scheduled for March 24 and a budget workshop set for March 25. Workshops typically are conducted in the county Think Tank, which is a conference-type room that is much smaller than the Commission Chambers in the County Administration Center on Ringling Boulevard in downtown Sarasota.

The evening of March 18, Media Relations Officer Winchester reported that the budget workshop had been cancelled.

Closing the schools

Just before 6:30 p.m. on March 13, the Sarasota County School District announced that, earlier in the day, the Governor’s Office and the Florida Department of Education had advised all school districts to keep students home from school the week after spring break, which began on March 13. Thus, students would remain out of class through March 27, a district news release explained. “Staff may be called into work the week of March 23,” the release said.

“In addition, effective March 16, all extracurricular activities” — including all in-state and out-of-state field trips and athletic competitions — “are cancelled until further notice,” the district release pointed out. “This includes any scheduled practices.”

Finally, the district news release said, “The Department of Education has advised that anyone who has traveled out of the country or on a cruise to any location, regardless of their health, must self-isolate for 14 days [emphasis in the release].” “This means staff and students are not allowed to come back to school or work for a total of 14 days,” the release added. Students will be given excused absences, the release noted.

File photo

However, on March 17, Richard Corcoran, the state’s director of education, ordered all public and private K-12 and career and technical center campuses closed through April 15.

Corcoran did advise school districts to work on plans to provide instruction online.

“Schools are encouraged to operate virtually or through other non-classroom-based means to the greatest extent possible to implement distance learning,” a Department of Education news release said.

Further, it continued, “School districts should be prepared to extend their educational calendars through June 30, 2020, to the extent feasible and necessary.”

That prompted an update from the Sarasota County School District, which went out the evening of March 18.

“The week of March 23, school district staff will be completing their instructional continuity plans and communicating with families on their technology needs,” the news release said. District staff had been in contact with Comcast, whose Internet Essentials program is available to anyone who needs internet connectivity in Comcast service areas, the release added. “Please go to https://www.internetessentials.com as quickly as possible to begin the connection process. If you need a laptop, please let the school district know by completing the Mobile Device Needs Survey, found at http://www.sarasotacountyschools.net/deviceneedssurvey. If you can’t access the survey, please contact the district’s Information Technology department at 941-927-9000, ext. 31350,” the release added.

“Beginning Monday, March 30,” the release said, “teachers will be trained on how to deliver distance learning. The school district is planning a complete rollout to all traditional public school students on Wednesday, April 1. Teachers who have connectivity issues will be allowed to work from their classrooms,” the release added.

Changing numbers

With the City and County of Sarasota offering updated recommendations about local protocols, based on the changing guidance from federal authorities, the Florida Health Department this week began providing updates twice a day on a COVID-19 “dashboard” on the department’s webpages.

This is the Florida Department of Health ‘dashboard’ map on the afternoon of March 16. Image courtesy Florida Department of Health
This is the dashboard map and related information as of 11 a.m. on March 19. mage courtesy Florida Department of Health

As of early afternoon on March 18, the Health Department was reporting four cases in Sarasota County and eight in Manatee County. Only two of those Sarasota County cases involved Florida residents, the dashboard said.

By 11 a.m. on March 19, the Sarasota County figure was up to five, with three of those involving residents, the dashboard said. Four of the victims are men, the dashboard noted.

Altogether in Sarasota County, it said, 210 people had been tested as of that time, with 152 negative results reported and 53 others pending.

Manatee had nine confirmed cases by 11 a.m. on March 19, with a total of 50 people tested. Of the Manatee victims at that time, five were men.

On the evening of March 12, Kim Savage, the public information officer for Sarasota Memorial Hospital (SMH), announced in an email that that facility had one new COVID-19 patient — “a 70-year-old man who was admitted March 10 and placed in isolation under the care of staff trained in appropriate infection prevention and control measures.” Savage added, “Test samples have been sent to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) for confirmation, but SMH and state health officials are treating it as a confirmed case for public health purposes.” That patient contracted the virus as a result of domestic travel, the report noted.

Another new case being treated at SMH involved a 67-year-old female resident of Manatee County, according to a March 14 update provided by Sarasota County leaders.

Then, on March 16, SMH reported that it had two more patients who had “presumptively tested positive for COVID-19 — an 87-year-old man admitted to SMH on March 13, and an 80-year-old man admitted on March 14.”

The news release added, “Both men had masks at the point of entry to the [Emergency Room]. As with our first two patients, they were placed in isolation under the care of staff trained in appropriate infection prevention and control measures. Two previously admitted patients, who tested presumptively positive on March 12 and March 13, remain hospitalized.”

Taking all precautions for employees

Just hours before the City of Sarasota issued its March 13 declaration of a public health emergency, Sarasota County Administrator Lewis and Rich Collins, director of the county’s Emergency Services Department, conducted their press conference. Among the information they provided, Collins talked about precautions Sarasota County Fire Department and EMS personnel are taking.

Sarasota County Emergency Services Director Rich Collins. Photo courtesy Sarasota County

“We have implemented a series of isolation techniques … for our employees,” Collins noted. Further, if a caller or report of an incident indicates that a COVID-19 infection is suspected, Collins said, firefighters and EMS personnel would “dress appropriately,” according to the applicable guidelines.

Lewis also noted that, as of noon that day, the Sarasota County Fair Board members still were planning to hold the County Fair. He had advised the Fair Board of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ recommendation not to continue with gatherings of 250 or more people, Lewis noted. “We certainly think [the fair] qualifies, but they have to make their own decision. … We want to make sure we’re not overstepping our bounds as local government.”

However, Lewis added, “We will not have county employees working at the County Fair.”

As of 1 p.m. on March 13, “members of the Sarasota County Fair Board have determined that the Sarasota County Fair, from March 13 to March 22, will proceed as scheduled,” a Sheriff’s Office news release said. “Based on this decision, and following the recommendation of the governor, Sheriff Tom Knight has elected to withdraw agency personnel assigned to work at the event.”

Then, at 2:40 p.m., the Sheriff’s Office learned that the Fair Board had canceled the event, department Media Relations Specialist Megan Krahe wrote in an email update.

Additionally, during the county press conference, Lewis reported that employee travel outside the county had been canceled for the next 30 days. Further, he explained, “We already have an e-work policy,” so administrative staff had asked all department directors to evaluate on a case-by-case basis whether staff could work remotely or needed to be in the office.

In his March 13 newsletter, City Manager Barwin pointed out, “We launched a temporary remote work policy for those with duties that will allow it. In addition, to encourage sick employees to stay home, we’re providing appropriate additional paid sick leave for eligible staff members who provide information that they or a dependent have been diagnosed with influenza or COVID-19.”

Work-related travel was suspended for city employees, too, Barwin noted.

The city’s March 18 announcement about the extension of the public health emergency also pointed out that the permit intake lobby in City Hall Annex would be closed at least until March 25, “as additional protective measures for employees and customers are being installed.”

Permitting can be handled online, the release said. For more information, call 263-6494 or email subnocroof@sarasotaFL.gov.

A Sarasota-specific call center for questions and concerns about COVID-19 is available through the Florida Department of Health in Sarasota County, city and county leaders have stressed. The number is 941-861-2873. Subject matter experts are available Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., City Manager Barwin wrote in his newsletter.

The most current, official information on COVID-19 in Florida may be found at http://www.floridahealth.gov/COVID-19. A 24/7 hotline is also available: 1-866-779-6121.

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