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Testing steps up, mayor mandates masks

David Adlerstein
The Apalach Times
The Apalach Times

Last week stood out as a key turning point in the county’s fight against the coronavirus, as the volume of testing blossomed and Apalachicola’s mayor issued an emergency proclamation mandating the wearing of masks inside of businesses.

On Monday, a lengthy queue of cars lined up at Weems Memorial Hospital as residents took advantage of free nasal swab testing, to see if they have the COVID-19 virus, and antibody testing, to see if they have ever been exposed to it.

In all Weems performed 391 COVID-19 nasal swap tests and 111 antibody tests by the time the busy, and heavily protected, medical professionals who conducted the testing through car windows called it a day.

The previously scheduled testing came about following a weekend that saw the county post its sixth confirmed case of the coronavirus on Saturday, and Apalachicola Mayor Kevin Begos issue his proclamation on Sunday afternoon.

The Florida Department of Health in Franklin County shared Saturday morning that a 34-year-old female Franklin resident had become ill after close contact to a non-resident visiting here. The visitor is no longer here.

Of the county’s six COVID-19 cases, two are no longer required to isolate. As of Monday, the health department had reported that 822 tests had been conducted, a number sure to rise now that the rapid antigen 15-minute test will be added to their positive case count.

The health department noted Saturday that itwas aware of an additional positive female resident related to the rapid antigen 15-minute test.

“We are working closely with the individual, healthcare provider and employer to investigate the situation and conduct contact tracing to ensure proper precautions are being taken to prevent the spread of the virus,” they wrote.

In a Facebook post related to this female resident, Tamara’s Cafe reported one of its employees displayed no symptoms and was told by health officials that the coronavirus was caught very early.

“In order to ensure public safety, we closed our restaurants down immediately for cleaning and sanitation,” wrote owner Danny Itzkovitz. “We appreciate all our costumers’ business and support during these unprecedented times. Please be safe and wear your masks.”

Following a thorough cleaning, on Monday PanCare came to the restaurant and tested 25 of the employees, spouses and children. The restaurant has since reopened under strict guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control.

On Friday, the health department received notification of a new positive case of COVID-19 in Franklin County, that of a 65-year-old male county resident with close contact to a previously confirmed positive case inside the county.

On June 23, the Carrabelle Christian Center reported on Facebook that its members have been in quarantine due to the exposure “of a person or persons with a positive COVID-19 test back on Sunday, June 7.

“We have had two of our family members test positive for the virus and we are continuing to be tested until we get an ‘all clear’ and safe to gather for church services,” the church wrote. “As of now, we are still waiting for an ‘all clear’ testing on everyone and are planning to return to regular service times on Sunday, July 5.

“We appreciate everyone’s prayers and patience during these difficult times. We have been keeping the church clean and we appreciate your faithfulness to give to the house during these times,” wrote the church. “We will get past these times with our God’s abundance of grace! We are family!”

The health department has repeatedly stress it works closely with patients, close contacts and healthcare providers to ensure proper precautions are being taken to contain the spread of this virus and mitigate its impact.

Through contact tracing, infectious disease specialists work to find everyone who has been in contact with the positive case, and those at-risk are interviewed, evaluated, and educated on their risk factors and what to do.

Some exemptions made to mask requirement

In his proclamation, Begos ordered the wearing of facial coverings indoors in businesses and other establishments, beginning early Thursday morning, July 2.

The state of emergency proclamation will remain in effect on a weekly basis, unless either the mayor or a majority vote by the city commission rescinds it.

The proclamation does not carry any penalties for violating its terms. “The fact is our outstanding police force cannot realistically enforce fines,” Begos wrote, in a statement accompanying his issuance of the proclamation. The mayor noted that the language had been reviewed by City Attorney Kristy Banks.

The rules, which went into effect at 6 a.m., apply to all indoor establishments, and spell out that a facial covering includes any covering which covers the nose and mouth, whether store-bought or homemade, such as a mask, scarf, bandana or handkerchief. The proclamation also applies to all city buildings.

The proclamation carries an exception for those taking part in religious services. It also exempts children under age six, people eating or drinking in restaurants, persons walking, exercising, or sitting outdoors, including people on boats; those “who have trouble breathing due to a chronic pre-existing condition or individuals with a documented or demonstrable medical problem,” those in their private rooms at a hotel, motel, vacation rental or other lodging establishment; and business owners and employees who are in “an area of a business establishment that is not open to customers or the public, provided that six feet of distance exists between persons.”

The proclamation requires these businesses and establishments to post signage explaining the facial covering requirement.

In his statement, Begos wrote that “masks are one of the few tools elected leaders have left to protect citizens. We must contain the virus so that businesses can remain open.

“I know this is controversial, but the rising numbers of COVID-19 cases locally and statewide convinced me that masks are a public health necessity,” he wrote. “There is still no vaccine, and all our previous sacrifices in closing businesses were not enough to stop the spread. COVID-19 does not go away in hot weather.”

Begos wrote that Florida’s Surgeon General has said “masks do make a difference in controlling the pandemic.”

The mayor acknowledged that some may “object to this level of government control,” by acknowledging that his ancestors, who settled in America more than 250 years ago, included individuals who fought against the British in 1780 at the Battle of Kings Mountain in South Carolina.

“Both my mother and father proudly served in the U.S. Navy. I value all our hard-won Constitutional rights,” he wrote.

“Yet we face an invisible pandemic that threatens our most vulnerable citizens. Even one life lost in Apalachicola would be one too many,” Begos wrote. “So I ask those of you who object to this order to consider all the sacrifices our parents and the generations before them made for us. I believe wearing a mask for a few minutes a day is a fair request to make.

“Our city and nation will get through COVID-19, just as our ancestors got through many hardships. Remember that a vaccine will come one day, just as it did for polio and many other diseases,” he wrote. “Stay strong. Have fun. Enjoy our beautiful city and its many wonderful businesses. Just wear a mask inside public buildings.”

In their regular news releases, the county health department has encouraged visitors to Franklin County to get tested for COVID19 prior to coming.

“We will continue providing COVID19 testing for Franklin and Gulf residents as well as individuals from other counties and/or states,” said Sarah Hinds, the department’s director. “That being said, if you suspect you might have COVID19, please do not travel here. Please get a COVID19 test (nasal swab for active infection) in your community and know your results before you arrive.

“Stay home when you are sick and follow CDC guidelines,” she said. “Visitors are also responsible for helping to keep our communities safe and healthy.”