Health Department and Emergency Services Department directors provide updates on COVID-19 from county perspective
With a chair separating each Sarasota County commissioner from another, and the front rows of the Commission Chambers marked off with yellow tape on March 24, the board members conducted their first official session amid rapidly multiplying COVID-19 infections in the county and the state.
County Administrator Jonathan Lewis and County Attorney Frederick “Rick” Elbrecht faced the commissioners from a table set up several feet from the dais. The few people sitting well away from each other in the audience appeared to be mostly members of county staff.
The three speakers who had signed up to address the board during the Open to the Public segment on the agenda were allowed to come in one by one, after a county employee took time to wipe down the equipment on the podium.
“This is very surreal this morning, to be held in a room outside the Commission Chamber,” Jon Mast, CEO of the Manatee Sarasota Business Industry Association, said as he looked out at the empty seats after taking his place at the podium.
Although an executive order Gov. Ron DeSantis issued on March 20 allows local government bodies to handle meetings via teleconferencing systems or by telephone, the Sarasota County commissioners agreed this week that they prefer to continue to meet in person.
County Administrator Lewis offered them a range of options for the coming weeks. Among those, he suggested that staff could eliminate the meetings set for April 7 and 8 and just compress the “mission-critical” issues on the April 21 and 22 agendas.
Lewis added that staff could move “all non-mission critical [agenda] items to May.”
Most of the people who had business scheduled before the board in April already had voluntarily agreed to postponements, he noted.
Another option, he said, would be board participation via teleconferencing. On the other hand, Lewis continued, three of them could be physically present, while the other two used internet-based software to take part in meetings.
Lewis did note his preference for having a quorum in Chambers, in case the board members needed to provide direction to him and County Attorney Elbrecht.
Moreover, Lewis continued, the chair or vice chair needs to sign county documents, which would necessitate the presence of one or both of them at any sessions. (Commissioner Michael Moran is chair; Commissioner Alan Maio is vice chair.)
He did ask that the commission approve the cancellation of all county advisory board meetings through April, as those sessions already had been cancelled for March.
Finally, if the commissioners wanted to meet in April, he recommended they allow staff to consolidate the business items on agendas for April 8 and April 22. He added that technology available at the County Administration Center in downtown Sarasota makes it advisable to conduct both meetings there, instead of having any at the R.L. Anderson Administration Center in Venice.
Commissioner Maio pointed out that he drove in his air-conditioned truck that day to the County Administration Center located at 1660 Ringling Blvd. in downtown Sarasota. When he arrived in the Chambers, he continued, a couple of people who came up to him practiced the “social distancing” the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has advised.
Further, “The room is set up as most appropriately as possible,” Maio noted. “I don’t think I’m hurting myself by attending.”
“Gee, I’m finding myself agreeing with Commissioner Maio, Commissioner Nancy Detert said, drawing at least one chuckle. She added that she, too, felt “perfectly safe” given the way the Chambers had been set up that morning.
Her primary concern about teleconferencing, Detert continued, was the potential for limiting or preventing public comments.
Finally, on a motion by Commissioner Charles Hines, the board members unanimously directed Lewis to consolidate business matters into agendas for April 8 and April 22 for meetings in Sarasota. They also concurred with the recommendation to cancel advisory board meetings in April.
More changes in county protocols
On March 24, in reviewing steps he already has taken to try to protect the public, Lewis talked about the potential for closing playgrounds at county parks.
Then, about 5:45 p.m. that day, the official announcement came from Sara Nealeigh, media relations officer for the Emergency Services Department: As of 6 a.m. on March 25, she wrote, “all county-operated playgrounds, dog parks, and tennis, pickleball, basketball and volleyball courts will be closed for public use.”
For the time being, Lewis said on March 24, boat ramps would remain open.
However, he continued, “Manatee and Charlotte [counties] are moving to close their boat ramps.”
Commissioner Detert voiced frustration over photos of boaters gathered at spoil islands in the county’s waterways, ignoring the recommendations for social distancing.
Commissioner Maio told Lewis, “I support what you’re doing by leaving the boat ramps open. … I think it’s very valuable to our folks right now that they have some opportunities to get out there. … We just don’t need them abusing it, where there’s big congregations of people.”
Both Maio and Detert suggested signage be erected at boat ramps to warn members of the public to follow CDC guidelines.
“I am for the least restrictive environment that we can safely have,” Detert added. It was “pretty sad,” she continued, that spring break behavior necessitated the closing of beaches around the state, including the 3 miles of public shoreline in Sarasota County. “Now those kids are probably long gone.”
Her fear with boaters, she added, is, “Once again, you’re going to have a small minority ruining it for everyone [else].”
Further, as of March 25, Lewis said, staff would be allowing no members of the public at the County Administration Center in downtown Sarasota or at the Sarasota Operations Center — the BOB building, which is located at 1001 Sarasota Center Blvd., east of Sarasota. The public may make appointments, he said, if they have business that must be conducted in person. Otherwise, everyone will be encouraged to call the county Contact Center at 941-861-5000 or visit the county website, http://www.scgov.net.
In conjunction with that information, the March 24 email from Media Relations Officer Nealeigh noted, “Beginning Wednesday, March 25, the following in-person services at the Robert L. Anderson Administration Center [in Venice] are temporarily suspended”: utilities, permitting, zoning, land development, environmental protection and Code Enforcement.
For a full list of services that have changed or been cancelled, visit scgov.net/COVD-19, Nealeigh wrote.
The following closures were announced earlier, Lewis noted on March 24: all county-owned beaches, indoor park facilities, and recreation and nature centers.
Lewis also explained to the board members that Sarasota County Area Transit (SCAT) Route 33, which provided transportation from the Amish and Mennonite community of Pinecraft to Siesta Key, was cancelled, even though “it happens to be one of our consistently very, very full buses.”
The goal was to discourage people from going to the beach, which has been closed, he pointed out.
Likewise, Lewis said, SCAT had halted the operation of the free Siesta Key Breeze trolley for the time being.
The COVID-19 update
After spending almost 40 minutes on the agenda items for March 24, the commissioners took another hour and 48 minutes to hear and discuss COVID-19 updates from Chuck Henry, director of both the Florida Department of Health in Sarasota County and the county’s Health and Human Services Department, as well as Rich Collins, director of the Emergency Services Department.
Henry pointed out that the coronavirus case announced at Doctors Hospital of Sarasota on March 1 was the first confirmed infection in the state.
He explained that the Health Department’s epidemiology teams are interviewing everyone who has contracted COVID-19, in an effort to trace the sources of the infection and identify all the people with whom those patients had contact.
Further, Henry said, “We probably have 200 of what we call ‘persons of interest’ that we’re monitoring around the community” in an effort to prevent the spread of the virus.
The Health Department is getting “about 300 calls a day,” he continued, on the hotline it has dedicated to COVID-19: 941-861-2883. That hotline is staffed from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, Henry noted, with efforts underway to expand response hours to the weekends.
Collins said that about 17.1% of the calls that the Sarasota County Fire Department and EMS staff is getting entail reports of flu-like symptoms.
In collaboration with the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office, he pointed out, a list of questions was composed for 911 Dispatch staff to use in an effort to alert first responders to the need to take precautions when answering calls.
Collins also told the board that about 600 of the county’s approximately 3,600 employees have begun working remotely. That number had increased by 500 since last week, he said.
“This is going to be a long few weeks here, or maybe months,” Chair Moran told Collins after Collins concluded his report. “You are flat out saving people’s lives here,” Moran added.