For a county that has been sharply at odds over health care for a while, Tuesday’s county commission was an inspiring show of unity on the dismal subject of disease.
From the moment Commissioner Ricky Jones called in the opening prayer, for "calmness and steadiness that people should expect from their government officials," the meeting smoothly, with a firm harmony, hammered out specifics regarding the county’s approach to the coronavirus pandemic that has spread to the United States.
County Coordinator Michael Morón wasted no time is addressing the topic, fueled by rumor, that the county would be considering closing restaurants and bars, or even the beaches.
"That’s not on the agenda, that is not being considered today," said Morón, "That is misinformation, fake news, whatever you want to call it. It’s not up for discussion today."
By the end of Tuesday, though, the governor had handed down an order that all bars and nightclubs be closed for the next 30 days, to be enforced by Florida’s Department of Business and Professional Regulation. The order states any business that makes over half its revenue from alcohol sales can no longer sell drinks for the next month, while bars that also sell food will be allowed to remain open..
Restaurants should only allow 50 percent capacity at a time, and should separate seated customers by a distance of at least six feet, DeSantis said. Restaurants should also screen their employees before allowing them to work, and he encouraged Floridians to use take-out and delivery services instead of dining in.
County adopts joint TDC statement
Even before the governor’s order, the commissioners got down to business, and unanimously approved a joint statement drafted by John Solomon, director of the Tourist Development Council.
TDC chair Rex Pennycuff thanked commissioners for their response, and Solomon said he was pleased the county was getting behind a single, cohesive message.
"In regards to COVID-19 we have been following all updates through the Florida Department of Health, Visit Florida and the Center for Disease Control in regards to domestic travel recommendations," it read. "At this time, the federal government has not recommended limiting domestic travel. Any travelers should practice the usual precautions.
"We encourage all tourism industry partners to stay aware of the situation and take necessary precautions. Please refer to the Florida Department of Health business guidelines as well as the guidelines for large events," it continued. "Franklin County Tourist Development Council has suspended event marketing until further notice and will resume when the events are rescheduled.
To our partners and businesses, we encourage you to continue to refer to the DOH www.floridahealth.gov and CDC www.cdc.gov/ as well as Visit Florida’s new website Florida Now for the most up-to-date information and guidance on COVID-19."
Solomon told commissioners spring breakers had already begun flocking to St. George Island, which saw ample crowds over the past week. There was no talk of beach closure.
"We’re taking it one day at a time," said Chair Noah Lockley.
Health department outlines measures
Both Sarah Hinds, director of the county health department, and Deanna Simmons, public information officer, plus David Walker, interim CEO of Weems Memorial Hospital, provided a detailed briefing on the situation. Each has been a been regular presenter at the county commission meetings in the past year, and their words helped fortify the county’s spirit of solidarity.
"It has caused some panic in some areas, communities can stop running out of toilet paper," said Hinds. "We’re trying to remain calm as we’re watching the news coverage of the situation."
She said mass closures would slow the spread of the disease, which has not yet surfaced in either Franklin or Gulf counties. The diea is to "flatten the curve" so any cases that arise do so gradually, rather than in a surge. "Otherwise, people who would need critical care wouldn’t be able to get it," said Hinds.
"It’s possible yes, we will have cases," she said. "We don’t want to reassure you that we won’t."
She outlined information found the CDC’s manual on "implementation of mitigating strategies" and encouraged citizens to peruse it at the CDC website.
"We might get cases, right?" Hinds said, "Are we going to panic? No we’re not going to panic."
Simmons said it was "normal for people to worry about outbreaks in their area," but following proper handwashing rules, and avoiding touching your face, can help fend off the virus.
"Sneeze like a vampire," said Hinds. "Sneeze into your elbow, not in your hand"
Simmons said the department will remain fully transparent, and provide clarity for all. "If there’s dark, they can’t prevent exposure," she said. "Informed people make better decisions. Misinformation is still misinformation, and it’s not healthy."
In response to a question from Commission Ricky Jones, Hinds said that any case that leads to a positive test result will be considered a "presumptive positive," and sent off to the CDC for confirmation.
"We will issue a press release that says we have a case," she said. "Once we have a case we’ll let everyone know. We want to keep our community safe."
Commissioner Bert Boldt reinforced the county’s support of the health department and confidence in their abilities.
"These are old pros," he said. "Sarah told me "we have been dealing with outbreaks before they ever become popular. We know what we’re doing."
Hinds said it was difficult to predict how long the virus might present on ongoing threat. "It’s not known how long this is going to last," she said. "It could take some time. We’d rather have a gradual tidal wave of cases rather than the surge."
Simmons said plans are in place to avoid maxxing out on the county’s capacity to treat people in need of ventilators or other advanced life-saving equipment. "We want it to be manageable because if it’s manageable we can control it," she said. "We want to steer where it goes."
The county library has suspended all its public programming, and suspended interlibrary loans, and remains open on a day by day basis. Interim librarian Whitney Roundtree said there is concern for volunteers, many of whom are in the high-risk age group for exposure.
Solid Waste Director Fonda Davis said the Dixie Youth League has postponed its season. "We don’t have any sports going on right now," he said.
Tax Collector Rick Watson said his office has added an additional 30 days without penalty for license renewals and registration. He said his office has temporarily suspended driving tests, as well as the issuance of concealed weapons permits.
All the constitutional officers reported cleaning of their offices, and Hinds recommended they pay careful attention to disinfect those commonly touched surfaces, such as doorknobs, telephones and computer mice.
Jails reduced, jury selection halted
Sheriff AJ Smith said the county jail has reduced its population. "We’re releasing anybody that’s low risk, low bond misdemeanors. He said the transfer of four inmates to the Florida Department of Corrections was halted, and a stoppage put on volunteers, of which there are as many as 50 a week, visiting the jail.
Smith said the department can still conduct video visitation electronically. "I think we’re in good shape right now," he said.
Clerk of Courts Marcia John said all jury selections through the end of the month have been canceled. "Right now, whether court has been cancelled will be up to discretion of judges," she said. "Florida statute requires certain things. I can’t just suspend certain things we do in our office. We don’t want to close court unless we have to."
Johnson said her staff of 18 handles a lot of public transactions, from fines to marriage licenses to passports, and she said anyone who is ill is asked not to come to work. "The clerk has some discretion on people who owe fines. We can put them on payment plans and continuances," she said. "We’re going to look at individual cases because we know the people in our county
Morón said the commission won’t meet again for three weeks, during which "a lot could happen. We’ll make a determination about meetings when we get there."
He said with school closed for a month, the strain is affecting staff. "Do I rotate one of my staff to be the baby sitter?" he said.
County Extension Agent Erik Lovestrand, who recently moved offices into the former Apalachicola National Estuarine Research Reserve office at the Mill Pond, said the silver lining is that "a lot of people haven’t found us yet. That’s a blessing in disguise."
Morón said three events were slated for the Fort Coombs Armory and asked for guidance. Jones recommended closure and cancellation, and County Attorney Michael Shuler was clear.
"Yes, it should be canceled," he said, We are here to serve the public health. Refund these people their money. My recommendation would be to cancel it with our condolences and sincere regrets but public health does come first."
Walker said health agencies are conserving masks for emergencies and cautioned against their use when it is not warranted.
"We do have a very limited supply," he said. "We are doing our best that the appropriate people have the masks as needed."
Later in the evening the Apalachicola city commission held a speciula meeting, and unanimously approved an order to waive late fees and disconnections with water and sewer bills for at least 30 days.
State Rep. Jason Shoaf was on hand, and pledged his support in getting peoples’ questions answered from state officials, and in utilizing a range of options being outlined by DeSantis.
"This is all new uncharted territory," he said. "Your leaders will help keep Apalachicola safe. The governor is doing a great job trying to give local governments a lot of options. You will see extraordinary measures taken to continue government."