Tom Harmer said the COVID-19 pandemic is different than other emergency-response events he's experienced in the past.
Closing the Longboat Key town offices to the public was one of many measures the town has taken to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Town Manager Tom Harmer spoke over the phone with Longboat Observer reporter Mark Bergin to discuss how the town is continuing to function and how it is handling the coronavirus pandemic.
When did you realize how serious coronavirus, also known as COVID-19, was?
So, we were tracking it going back to the first of March. That's when the first case in our area tested positive. I believe it was in Manatee County. Around the first of March, and so we were aware of it.
We were communicating with the other cities in the county, but I think it was really mid-March. I think that if I'm remembering the dates correctly, the [13th] of March is when Sarasota County actually issued a state of emergency. So, that’s when… I guess the focus became more heightened when we became under that local state of emergency, but we were tracking it since the beginning of March.
What do you think residents should know about the steps the town has taken to continue to function?
We've kept the core government operating, providing all basic services.
So, if it’s necessary for someone to get a permit, they can get a permit. If they are trying to track down a public record, we can help them with that. If they if they need to pay their water bill, they can still pay their water bill. We're responding to everyday police calls [both] emergency and non-emergency. We're responding to fire calls. Water and sewer services in the town… We’re maintaining all of those, what I would call, basic town services every day and we continue to do that.
The biggest thing we've done is shut down some of our recreational amenities as part of the advisories to minimize gathering of people in public spaces, and we've closed our public facilities for walk-ins, so that we can minimize exposure of the public and the employees to face-to-face interactions.
But otherwise, we’re doing everything we can to maintain a high level of service for the day to day while we respond to the pandemic.
Are there any cutbacks that people should know about that the town has had to do because of the pandemic?
No, we've made adjustments in responses. We've asked people to work with us more electronically.
We did close down our Tennis Center completely, but otherwise, the services are being maintained.
We do have employees working from home. Not all of our employees, but we have on a case-by-case basis, identified employees that could still perform some of their functions at home. Now that may be a couple [of] days a week or five days a week depending on the position, and that's to minimize the amount of employees working in a particular work area.
But other than that, the service levels are generally the same.
We did take like our building permits, we've extended the timeframe for final inspections. We did that so that we could maintain a service level in the community so that people could finish their projects and not put our inspectors at risk so that we didn't want to harm them in any way by slowing down their project or stopping it. We just may delay a final permanent at no negative impact to them, and that’s how we've tried to address all of our service levels.
Do you think the counties and the state are doing enough to help the town of Longboat Key?
I think under this type of emergency, we do take and receive orders from the state: the governor's executive orders.
We primarily, though, coordinate with county government. That's the way the statutes are written in Florida. So as a municipality, when there is an emergency where you have a declared local state of emergency, we then coordinate and take direction from county government.
In our case, we have an inter-local agreement because we're in two counties (Manatee and Sarasota counties) that says we fall under Sarasota County. So, we have been in communication with Manatee County, and we'll continue to do so, but we have primarily been working on a daily basis with Sarasota County and their actions and efforts.
So, they assist us in providing direction on [the] governor's executive orders. They help coordinate the collaborative action between all of the cities in the county and whatever actions they're taking. And, we get to discuss those with them daily as a group, and so I think they've been working hard to try and have a consistent approach within Sarasota County as much as possible.
How does this specific pandemic compare to the other hardships you’ve lived through in your life?
I have spent some time in my career as an emergency manager, and all emergencies have common components. We typically manage them with a consistent model: the incident command system or the National Incident Management System, and we're using that same model here. And, the county is using that same model, and I'm sure the state is using that same model, but each incident or emergency has its unique characteristic.
This is a lot different than any of the other incidents I've been involved in. I've been involved in tornado response, flooding, hurricanes, wildfires. And, this one is unique because it's going to be occurring in the emergency phase over a very long period of time.
If you just go back to March, we're well over a month into this and we know that the peak is still being predicted to be out another…it could be another four, six to eight weeks.
Usually, when you have a storm-related event, the emergency phase is relatively short. Even a hurricane, it may be less than a day, it may be four hours, six hours or you may have sustained high winds when you're in that emergency, kind of hunkering down phase.
For this pandemic, we're going to be in the emergency phase for a long time, so it does change a little bit of the response. It requires that old cliche of, “it's a marathon, not a sprint.” We've got to be patient, we've got to continue to communicate and we've got to be sustainable because this is a long-term event.
Outside of your role as town manager, what have you been doing to social distance, pass the time and have fun?
This has been reported before, but I trained in the martial arts. I’ve done that for years. So, we're now training virtually. So, we share training videos and tips from across the area, instead of meeting face to face — it's not the time to meet face to face — and do that kind of training.
My wife and I walk. We ride our bikes. We have also built a temporary pickleball court in our garage for just the two of us. So, we have adjusted to make sure that we can have some opportunities for exercise and distraction knowing that we have to be patient during this event.