Vice mayor warns of ramifications of second wave of COVID-19 cases if community leaders act too soon to take such steps
Editor’s note: The Sarasota News Leader is providing general reporting on the novel coronavirus to readers for free as a public service.
Two days before the Sarasota County Commission addressed the issue, the Sarasota city commissioners made it clear that they believe it is too early to reopen the beaches, as the COVID-19 death toll continued to rise.
As of 6:17 p.m. on April 20 — a little more than two hours after the City Commission meeting ended — the Florida Department of Health reported a total of 27,058 novel coronavirus cases in the state, with 26,329 confirmed in Florida residents.
The death count had climbed to 823. As of the 12:40 p.m. report on April 21, the death total was 839.
In Sarasota County, the total number of cases reported as of the evening of April 20 was 296, with 28 deaths. Those figures had not changed as of the early-afternoon state provided on April 21 on the state’s COVID-19 “Dashboard.”
The April 20 state Health Department bar graph did show a gradual decline in the number of new state cases identified from April 17 through April 19, but the figure rose again on April 20. The bar graph for Sarasota County showed spikes in diagnoses over the previous weeks, with April 6 the peak thus far, when 27 cases were reported.
During his remarks to the commissioners, via telephone, City Manager Tom Barwin also noted the most recent “heat map” provided by Sarasota County staff in collaboration with the Florida Department of Health in Sarasota County. That April 19 map indicated the prevalence of positive COVID-19 cases by zip code over the prior 14 days.
Previously, Barwin said, the highest number of cases was in the 34236 zip code, which includes downtown Sarasota, along with Lido, Bird and St. Armands keys. The new map, he continued, made it clear that “the  and the  zip codes have been showing an uptick, [while] the [34236 zip code area] basically remained quite steady.”
Those three zip code zones have between 15,000 and 16,000 residents each, Barwin pointed out. Therefore, the COVID-19 ratio reflected by the latest heat map is about one case per thousand, “which trends certainly higher” than the figures for the rest of the county and the state, he said.
Using the most conservative estimates, Barwin continued, health officials also have explained that for each case identified, “You probably have at least eight others,” based on contacts the infected individuals have had.
The downtown Sarasota zip code, he noted, generally reflects older residents who have been more likely to travel and to have attended arts and cultural events.
One theory about the climbing numbers linked to specific zip codes, Barwin pointed out, is that more testing may have taken place among residents in those areas.
Another theory is that those figures reflect higher percentages of people associated with essential businesses that are still open, leading to further spread of the virus. “Hopefully, we’ll have more testing and more numbers” in the not-too-distant future.
As for the community’s preparedness in the event of a case surge: Barwin reported that during his most recent conversation with Chuck Henry, director of the Florida Department of Health in Sarasota County, Henry had told him that the best models have predicted the state will see its peak number of cases in the first week of May, though that data is subject to change on a daily basis.
As of the morning of April 20, Barwin continued, “Approximately 52% of the hospital beds in our county” were in use by COVID-19 patients, including those in intensive care units (ICU).
The beaches and the boat ramps
Then Barwin turned to the topic of reopening the county’s beaches, which County Administrator Jonathan Lewis ordered closed as of 6 a.m. on March 21. “We as a city were very supportive of that,” Barwin added.
The city closed its boat ramps, he reminded the commissioners, after the Manatee County Commission took that step last month, which “resulted in a dramatic increase in activity around our city boat ramps.”
Barwin added, “We’ve had about a dozen or 18 emails and phone calls” from residents pleading with city leaders to reopen the boat ramps. However, the county heat maps indicate that keeping them closed is the preferable action, he said.
Commissioner Hagen Brody talked of “how proud [he is] of the community for taking this [pandemic] so seriously. I think everyone here really learned a lot about how to best protect themselves.”
A plateau in the use of hospital beds, Brody continued, would be the best indicator that the virus’ impact is ebbing, in the absence of a significant amount of testing.
Nonetheless, Brody said, “I do think over the next couple of weeks, we’re going to have to start allowing people to exercise and get out on the beaches,” though he added that he had no date in mind. “This virus is not going away anytime soon. There’s not a vaccine … that’s coming around the corner. We are going to have to figure out what that new normal looks like.”
“My recommendation is for the beaches to remain closed until these [COVID-19 case numbers] start to go down,” Barwin said. Although Sarasota County manages the public beaches, he continued, “We do have jurisdiction over Lido Beach …”
“I agree with the city manager” about the beaches and boat ramps, Commissioner Liz Alpert responded.
Commissioner Willie Shaw also concurred with Barwin’s recommendation, “until we can find ourselves out of the woods …”
“I think that we continue to follow the medical directives and the science and the experts,” Vice Mayor Shelli Freeland Eddie said, “and that we don’t open before it’s medically safe to do so. … We haven’t even seen a flattening of the curve” in the county.
Moreover, she pointed out, as of that date, less than 3% of the county’s residents had been tested for COVID-19.
As of 10 a.m. on April 21, the Florida Department of Health reported that a total of 3,615 people in Sarasota County had been tested, with 8% of those identified as positive for the virus. The University of Florida’s Bureau of Economic and Business Research (BEBR), which is recognized by state leaders as the primary source for a wide variety of Florida demographic data, estimates Sarasota County’s population this year at 431,100. That would put the number of county residents tested for COVID-19 at 0.08%.
In her April 21 update, Kim Savage, public information officer for Sarasota Memorial Hospital (SMH), reported that as of 3 p.m. that day, the hospital had tested more than 1,250 people, with 109 positive results and additional results pending. She noted, “The rate of positive results has remained relatively flat for the past week, averaging 8.6 percent.”
Taking steps “to open major parts of our community too soon,” Freeland Eddie stressed, could put even more of a strain on businesses and workers. “The worst thing that could happen to employees and small businesses,” she said, would be a second mandated state shutdown because of a new spike in cases.
“I couldn’t agree more on the comments that you just made,” Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch told Freeland Eddie.