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Sarasota Thursday, Jun. 25, 2020 1 month ago

Rising COVID-19 numbers draw response from Sarasota leaders

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City officials are considering making masks mandatory, while county staff is relying on the public to exercise good judgment.
by: David Conway Deputy Managing Editor

An increasing number of COVID-19 cases has Sarasota officials refocusing attention on managing the spread of the coronavirus, with city and county leaders already pursuing different approaches for addressing the issue.

As the volume and rate of positive tests has recently trended upward in Florida, state data shows a similar phenomenon on the local level. On Tuesday, Sarasota County passed 1,000 total confirmed COVID-19 cases. Test results Tuesday confirmed 59 COVID-19 cases in Sarasota County, the highest one-day total to date.

During the past seven days, Sarasota County averaged 40.9 new cases daily and a testing positivity rate of 7.1%. That’s an increase from 13.6 daily cases and a 1.8% rate the week before.

Several Sarasota businesses have closed temporarily as employees await COVID-19 test results. Restaurants including Raffurty’s Bar and Grill and Pacific Rim have announced extended closures after learning individuals with COVID-19 had been on their properties.

Officials at Sarasota Memorial Hospital said they had begun to see an increase in COVID-19 cases as of June 18, though they said the hospital still has adequate capacity to handle the number of patients coming into the facility. Dr. Kirk Voelker, a critical care specialist at SMH, said there were six COVID-19 patients in intensive care Monday — a fraction of the 32 coronavirus ICU beds the hospital set up in the spring. Although the median age of patients who have tested positive has declined locally, Voelker said the average ICU patient is still above 70 years old.

Hospital capacity isn’t being strained right now, but health professionals and other officials continue to stress the serious threat the coronavirus poses. Voelker noted there can be lag between when cases are diagnosed and symptoms present themselves, so hospital admissions could still rise. City Manager Tom Barwin pointed to recent business closures as evidence that even asymptomatic cases in healthy, younger individuals can disrupt the local economy.

Dr. Manuel Gordillo, SMH’s medical director of infection prevention and control, noted that COVID-19 remains a challenge because there are no identified treatments. As a result, he stressed the importance of “nonpharmaceutical intervention” to slow the spread of the virus. In addition to social distancing and hand-washing, Gordillo endorsed wearing cloth face coverings.

“We know for sure that the virus gets transmitted before you get symptomatic,” Gordillo said. “And there’s good scientific evidence from many sorts of studies that, indeed, a mask can protect people from acquiring COVID-19 and also from disseminating COVID-19 to others.”

Mask on?

On Monday, the city of Sarasota could join the list of Florida jurisdictions requiring the use of masks in shared indoor spaces.

Sarasota Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch requested a special meeting to consider a mask mandate. Ahearn-Koch said she supports requiring masks based on input from health professionals. The state and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have recommended the use of cloth face coverings when social distancing is not possible or difficult.

Ahearn-Koch said wearing masks could provide economic benefits. She believes the city can craft requirements that enhance public welfare without creating an undue burden for residents.

“The idea for this is to protect the community and make the community safer,” Ahearn-Koch said. “The idea is to invigorate business because people are feeling nervous about going into businesses.”

As the city discusses making masks mandatory, county officials are recommending against requiring face coverings. In an email to county commissioners, County Administrator Jonathan Lewis said staff did not believe a mask requirement was practically enforceable. Lewis said the county would rely on the public to wear masks when social distancing is not possible — and to leave if they’re someplace where people aren’t following guidelines.

“Personal judgment still seems to be the most effective tool in our fight to slow the spread of the virus and protect our hospitals,” Lewis wrote.

In his weekly email newsletter sent June 19, Barwin expressed a similar sentiment. He encouraged residents to take the initiative to wear masks by asking what he posed as a rhetorical question: “We really don’t want to have government folks mandating and enforcing mask laws, do we?”

On Monday, Barwin shared emails he had received from residents who answered that question in earnest: Yes, they did want to see required use of masks.

“The evidence is that our citizenry and visitors have failed to display the necessary behaviors that would indicate they are acting as mature and responsible adults,” resident Steven Novick wrote. “Have you walked down Main Street lately? How about St. Armands Circle? Large groups of people clumped together and no masks.”

Barwin said he’s seen other pockets of support for masks that caught him by surprise. He’s heard from businesses that have asked for mandatory face coverings, which they said would allow them to better deal with customers upset about store policies.

The city attorney’s office is still working on producing local regulations, which will be modeled using similar orders in Tampa and St. Petersburg. Despite the county’s concerns about carrying out a mask mandate, Barwin was optimistic the regulations would immediately result in increased mask usage.

Barwin said the city is also finalizing plans to give away up to 50,000 masks. Beyond mask usage, Barwin is lobbying the Florida Department of Health in Sarasota County to facilitate same-day test results.

As the community remains in phase two of a statewide reopening, officials stressed the importance of limiting the spread of the coronavirus for the health and economic well-being of Sarasota.

“It’s OK to have a sense of community and to care about others,” Barwin said. “If that isn’t enough, look at the economic part of this: your favorite restaurant, where you get your automobile serviced, your barber or hair salon, even your supermarket. You don’t want to put those people out of work, do you?”

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