After a year dominated by the effects of COVID-19, there’s hope relief is on the way — but challenges associated with the coronavirus remain.
Less than 10 months after the first case of COVID-19 was identified in Sarasota County, health professionals at Sarasota Memorial Hospital began distribution of a vaccine designed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus disease.
SMH hailed the arrival of the vaccines — which were also shipped to other area hospitals and the Florida Department of Health in Sarasota County — as a sign of hope. In 2020, the state reported more than 450 COVID-19 deaths in Sarasota County. Local governments declared states of emergency; businesses were forced to close; essential workers continued to labor amid an unprecedented pandemic.
Fueled by the vaccines, there’s optimism that the story of 2021 will be a brighter one — and that come Dec. 31, Sarasota might be able to celebrate a new year with the traditional pineapple drop in downtown. Still, there remains work to do to address issues associated with COVID-19, and officials are far from certain about what a recovery will look like.
“We want things to get back to normal,” interim City Manager Marlon Brown said. “We’re going to do our best to try to get there.”
The Florida Department of Health has started to administer COVID-19 vaccines to eligible members of the public, but so far, appointments are far from readily available.
Chuck Henry, the administrator of the Florida Department of Health in Sarasota County, said his office expected to exhaust its supply of 4,900 doses by the end of the week. With more than 150,000 Sarasota County residents in the above-65 eligibility category, the health department is asking the public to be patient for an opportunity to be injected.
“The number of vaccines is still limited,” Henry said. “We expect that to increase dramatically over the next few weeks, but until that happens, we’re limited by the number of vaccines we receive.”
Department of Health spokesperson Steve Huard said officials are exploring options for distributing the vaccine once supply ramps up, including appointments by phone and establishing drive-thru and walk-up sites.
“We’re looking at what’s happening around the states, what’s successful, what’s not successful,” Henry said.
As distribution begins, Sarasota County reported some of its highest COVID-19 case volumes to date, with more than 200 new cases identified daily during the past week. Officials encouraged the public to continue to abide by health guidelines as they await a vaccination — and to seek the vaccine as soon as it’s available.
“This is really going to get us out of this pandemic,” said Jamie Kisgen, the infectious disease pharmacy manager at SMH.
Back to business?
Beyond the public health issues, COVID-19 has negatively affected businesses and local government budgets. There’s hope that 2021 might offer some course-correction.
Business groups downtown and in St. Armands Circle have discussed investing in promotional campaigns, grant programs and infrastructure improvements in hopes of luring more visitors even as COVID-19 continues to dampen activity in the commercial districts. Both property owners and merchants have stressed the importance of finding ways to help businesses avoid permanent closures.
“We have to stop the pain any way we can help,” Downtown Improvement District Chairman Wayne Ruben said.
The city of Sarasota is exploring some adjustments to the restrictions it has placed on special events, allowing Howard Alan Events to host the annual Downtown Sarasota Festival of the Arts on Feb. 13 and 14 with safety precautions. Brown said officials were not in a hurry to fully reopen the city and that input from health experts will inform all decisions on how to proceed.
“We will do everything in a deliberate manner and not try to rush any decision,” Brown said.
At the outset of the pandemic, local governments made cuts and major revisions to their budgets for fiscal year 2021, but it was impossible to predict with certainty the effects COVID-19 would ultimately have on their finances. When the city produced an assessment of how the general fund compared in 2020, staff found things went better than forecasted, with the fund balance increasing by $4 million.
That outcome is attributable in part to a number of cost-cutting measures the city implemented, including a pause on hiring and equipment replacement. Finance Director Kelly Strickland said managing the city’s budget into 2021 will be a balancing act, with officials considering which positions can remain vacant and what infrastructure might need replacing. Brown expressed a desire to replace some staff that has departed the city’s development services department, hopeful that will help economic activity.
Strickland said finance staff will continue to prepare for a broad spectrum of outcomes while maintaining some hope that better days are ahead.
“We need to be cautious,” Strickland said. “We don’t know what’s going to happen. Will the vaccine fix everything? Do we have a new normal? We’re cautiously optimistic.”