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Concern over crowd sizes as COVID flexes

David Adlerstein
The Apalachicola Times

A spike in deaths related to COVID-19 throughout the county, coupled with a rise in the number of cases and a steady administration of vaccinations, can draw some attention.

This pandemic isn’t leaving without a fight, and may be coming out of its corner with a knockout punch in its gloves.

As of Tuesday, 10 people in the county had died due to the pandemic, a sharp increase over the four who for many months had been the total death toll.

Franklin County health department logo

Three of the victims have been between age 55 and 64, four under age 74, two under age 84, and one age 85 or older. One inmate has died at the Franklin Correctional Institution.

The percentage of hospitalizations, which total 26, is half that of the statewide average, as are the deaths.

There have been 73 cases in long-term care facilities in the county, of which Bay St. James Health and Rehab has been a major portion.

Sarah Quaranta, administrator of the state health department serving Franklin and Gulf counties, said five deaths are related to residents of St. James.

“First and foremost, we would like to express our deepest sympathies to the families and loved ones of anyone who lost their life during this pandemic,” she wrote, in an email outlining her office’s work in containing the coronavirus, which many health experts across the country continue to believe may well get worse before it gets better with the advent of the vaccine.

Vaccines continue to be administered in Franklin County as the department receives 100 additional first doses per week.  As of Tuesday, 1,150 Franklin County residents have received the COVID-19 vaccine, which is administered the same week we receive it.

A general atmosphere that loosens masking practices and social distancing behaviors -  from bars and restaurants to neighborhood gatherings -  has one Apalachicola businessman speaking out that greater attention needs to be paid towards protecting against a future spread here.

Photographer Richard Bickel, who owns a shop downtown, fears that taking a skies-the-limit viewpoint towards social gatherings will lead to a super-spreader event. He had questions about the Black Friday pre-Christmas event, and then was particularly incensed that last weekend’s Butts and Clucks event in Battery Park set a bad example, and has distanced himself from the Apalachicola Bay Chamber of Commerce.

“I have supported the Chamber faithfully for over 20 years and respect how they have helped build the Apalachicola Bay business community, including promoting my own retail endeavor,” he wrote in an email. “That said, doctors and epidemiologists are saying explicitly that any group gatherings, in any size are, in a word, dangerous.

“Unfortunately, the Chamber-sponsored Butts and Clucks BBQ was a group event that should not have happened if we are to respect science. This is what I am hearing from many in our community who question why it was held,” he continued. “Franklin County COVID numbers are rising exponentially with sickness and deaths. But rather than me opinionating any more as to the right – and wrong – of this event, I’ll leave it up to medical professionals.”

While Butts and Clucks drew the attention, but not the participation, of locals, it’s just one of many various and sundry gatherings -  a concert at a bar, a Farmers Market, the Chili Cookoff on the island in six weeks on a growing list of normalizing events.

No one knows that more than John Solomon, director of the chamber, which runs the Tourist Development Council.

Tourist numbers are setting records for the off-season after a dismal summer, and Butts and Clucks is in keeping with that trend, to get back to business. He pointed to a lengthy list of actions taken by the Butts and Clucks event, before and during, to stay within the guidelines, most notably making sure the public was not encouraged to attend, with all events appealing to non-competing visitors canceled, including musical entertainment and amateur competition.

The impetus behind the weekend was to have the event, but only for competitors and their crews, an event that has risen sharply in popularity within the Florida Barbecuing Association’s ranks in a few short years. With 46 competitors taking part, 10 more than last year, the event filled Battery Park with RVs and rigs, and populated local hotel rooms as well as restaurant tables and bar stools during an otherwise sluggish time of year.

“We are happy to say that we followed all CDC guidelines and recommendations. We had thermometers, took temperatures, social distancing, handed out COVID kits, and sanitized as we turned each table,” said Donna Duncan, president of the chamber and one of the event’s organizers.

“Each team traveled, cooked and socialized in their own area. Most teams had RVs and were very aware and concerned for local health as a result of their visit,” she wrote on Facebook. “The teams were very complimentary and left the next morning to return to their respective homes.

“As always Apalachicola was a beautiful location for our encapsulated event. We had very little foot traffic other than the teams. We cancelled any usual event that encouraged any contact that was outside of CDC guidelines,” she said.

Quaranta said she offered advice to the organizers beforehand, but such consultation was about the limit of her role. The administration of Gov. Ron DeSantis’, whose executive orders largely defined the year-long response, has made clear that local governments are limited in what they can do to restrict the operation of lawful businesses and publicly-approved gatherings.

“When it comes to community events, we provide guidance in alignment with the CDC as well as any state public health advisories issued,” said Quaranta. “I did have a chance to speak with someone helping to coordinate the event prior to the weekend and we talked through some scenarios. However, we do not have the authority to recommend or cancel events.”

Another individual consulted beforehand was Mayor Kevin Begos, who was an early adopter of a mask mandate and continues to be wary of loosening public safety guidelines.

“The city permitted the event months ago expecting it would be much smaller, and when COVID cases were low. But we failed to specify a limit on the number of trailers,” he wrote on Facebook. “The event organizers did not advertise as usual, so they may have been surprised, too.

“The city made a mistake in not saying exactly how many visitors would be allowed, yet most places in the nation and world are struggling to find some balance between public health and economic activity. I’m not sure anyone has found that balance,” Begos wrote.

He noted that Florida cities and counties are not allowed to impose fines for mask violations. “While the city of Apalachicola has been a leader in pushing for masks inside of buildings, we can’t enforce the rule,” Begos wrote. “The Butts n’ Clucks organizers strongly encouraged mask use, too, and we know the organizers and visitors had only good intentions. This has been another learning experience.”

The mayor said he intends to ask the city commission, when it meets Tuesday. to impose clear limits on future outdoor gatherings as long as local COVID cases remain high.

“We had more local COVID deaths in the last two weeks than the first nine months combined,” Begos wrote. “Six new deaths in just the last two weeks. We must do everything in our power to stop that trend.”