Editor’s note: The following letter was sent to the Apalachicola mayor and city commissioners earlier this week.
As you contemplate whether and when to “open the city,” without offering an all-or-nothing solution, I would first like to underline the complexity of the situation.
As challenging as the COVID-19 virus is for any community, we have an immense additional challenge. It is quite evident there are large numbers of infected people in the very cities and towns across the USA whose citizens vacation in Franklin County. These tourists are both the potential source of infection, and the primary source for support of our economic basis. Franklin County is in a double-bind; damned if we do and damned if we don’t.
In normal times, it is evident the vast majority attending almost any event in Franklin County - concert, gallery opening, restaurant, shop - are visitors.
At the present closed time, it seems that to some folks, there is an “illusion of safety.” Very few people in the stores that remain open are practicing social distancing. Others are resisting. One could naively say “we aren’t getting sick, what’s the big deal?” To my knowledge we still only have only two confirmed cases quarantined in the county. As you know, our sheriff acted swiftly to protect us from a possible source of infection when a Georgia state senator recovering from COVID 19 came to St. George Island in a caravan of three cars.
No additional cases have become evident to the health authorities on whom we rely for information, but without widespread testing there is no way to know whether the virus is more prevalent. I fear people who operate under this “illusion of safety” are not connecting the dots. The fact that short term rentals have been suspended and public beaches closed, is in my view, the main reason we have not had an outbreak, because these regulations have kept out visitors who could potentially bring the COVID19 virus into the county.
However, these very visitors are the main source of our economic base. Certainly some of our local residents have been traveling to and from Gulf, Wakulla, Bay and Leon counties, but these counties have dramatically fewer cases of the virus than in large cities, such as Atlanta, home to many of our visitors.
Surely serious thought with reliance on science and economic realities needs to be directed toward both protecting our citizens, and preventing the collapse of our local businesses and base of our economic well-being. An all-or-nothing “Open or Closed” is not the answer.
Retired citizens, many new to the county, have the luxury of being able to continue sheltering in place, maintaining social distancing and ordering supplies, groceries or meals-to-go from local restaurants.
Retired citizens are not the primary people most at risk. The real danger with an opening to tourists is to the local working population, those who work in health care, law enforcement, grocery stores, restaurants, shops, hair salons, etc. And their families. The elderly, and those with compromised immune systems or underlying health issues such as high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, and obesity are especially vulnerable. Young people with any of these conditions are also in danger. As it takes just one match or bolt of lightning to start a massive forest fire, it only takes the public presence of one person with COVID 19 to infect our community and quickly overwhelm our health facilities, in no way equipped for a heavy local outbreak. The fact research indicates a person is most contagious before he or she exhibits symptoms adds to the problem.
In respect to protection from the virus, the safest way would be to keep the closed status quo until a vaccine and/or effective treatment is available for widespread use. Waiting a projected minimum of 18 months for a vaccine before opening up short term rentals and public beaches to the tourist industry would cause great hardship, as well as stress-related health issues for our working population. And destroy our economic base.
One possibility, Mayor Begos and city commissioners, in close consultation with local health authorities and state and county officials, would be to define a first phase. Perhaps opening up restaurants, shops and local services, and continuing to suspend short-term rentals and keep closed public beaches. Local residents would be encouraged to support these newly-opened businesses. Masks, social distancing, and conscientious sanitizing would be required. Older residents could choose to continue to shelter in place. Volunteer efforts, already initiated, could expand to support those local elderly residents and those with compromised immune systems or underlying health conditions, by delivering to them food and supplies.
During this first phase, city officials, in partnership with county and state authorities and the county health department, chamber of commerce and business leaders, and rental agencies, could develop plans for a second phase opening, implementing an entry screening program for visitors.
I urge you all to proceed with great caution, thought and deliberation as you make these difficult decisions.
Michaelin Reamy Watts