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Sarasota Thursday, Apr. 30, 2020 2 years ago

Sarasota officials prepare strategies for reopening

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What does a reopened Sarasota look like while COVID-19 remains a threat? How do officials determine when it's OK lift restrictions?
by: David Conway Deputy Managing Editor

With a statewide stay-at-home order set to expire at the end of the week, local leaders began to amplify conversations about what the process of reopening and reactivating parts of the community will entail.

For Sarasota County, which reopened beaches Monday but continued to restrict activities there, staff said the guidance of Gov. Ron DeSantis and a state task force will play a significant role in determining which steps to take next.

“Once we have an idea of what those things are that the governor’s talking about, that gives us a little bit more ability to talk about how that would impact our local area,” said Rich Collins, the county’s director of emergency services.

In the city of Sarasota, where Lido Beach remains closed, officials are expressing caution. In discussing how to determine when conditions are right to lift restrictions, City Manager Tom Barwin and Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch have cited federal guidelines for states that recommend waiting to see a 14-day decline in positive COVID-19 cases.

“What we want to avoid with all of our efforts is a second wave,” Ahearn-Koch said in an appearance on CNN on Monday. “That second wave would be devastating for an economic recovery.”

The Florida Department of Health in Sarasota County has also advocated for a measured approach to relaxing regulations.

“Slow and selective are key words I would use,” said Chuck Henry, Sarasota County Health and Human Services director.

A newly formed group comprised primarily of local business leaders, however, is urging county officials to allow businesses to reopen sooner rather than later. The Sarasota/Manatee Project Resurrection Task Force, which includes heads of the Sarasota and Bradenton economic development corporations, is pushing to empower the private sector to take the lead in determining an appropriate strategy for resuming business activity. Matt Walsh, owner and CEO of the Observer Media Group, which publishes the Sarasota Observer, is a member of that task force.

“In short, we believe Sarasota and Manatee counties are ready to reopen,” states an April 22 letter from the group to state officials.

On Wednesday, DeSantis unveiled plans for resuming some activity effective May 4, allowing restaurants and retail stores to operate at 25% capacity indoors. DeSantis said the state would be taking a measured, step-by-step approach to reopening — a sentiment local officials have also shared.

Disease diagnostics

Although Sarasota County has seen a general decline in new reported cases and the rate of positive tests, it has not hit the 14-day standard city officials cited.

To date, the peak number of cases reported in Sarasota County in one day was 26 on April 6. In the week from April 22 to April 28, there was an average of 5.6 cases reported daily, with the highest total coming on April 23, when nine cases were confirmed.

In neighboring Manatee County, where the rate and volume of positive cases has outpaced Sarasota, the peak was more recent: 57 cases were announced April 18. In the week of April 22-28, there was an average of 17.4 cases announced daily, with a one-day high of 35 on April 27.

Ahearn-Koch pointed out federal guidelines also call for robust testing, which she said is not yet in place in Sarasota. Nearly 4,500 individuals have been tested in Sarasota County, just over 1% of the population.

According to state data, between April 21 and April 27, Sarasota County averaged approximately 98 tests a day. That represents about an 8% increase compared to the first week of the month.

Collins said increasing testing capacity continues to be a priority. Both he and Barwin said local governments are eager to support that effort however possible, with Barwin stating the city has offered up public facilities to conduct tests. The state plans to open a new testing facility near the Mall at University Town Center next week. 

Outside the public realm, organizations and businesses are adjusting their own COVID-19 precautions. Sarasota Memorial Hospital said it is preparing to resume elective procedures when statewide restrictions lift May 4. The hospital is already testing high-risk patients for COVID-19 prior to nonelective surgeries, and it plans on expanding further when nonemergency procedures are permitted. 

The Humane Society of Sarasota County, which closed to the public March 21, announced it is planning to reopen its shelter on May 1, allowing only a limited number of visitors into the facility.

The Sarasota/Manatee Project Resurrection Task Force is lobbying state and county officials to resume even more economic activity locally. In the April 22 letter to the state, the group proposes allowing businesses with 10 or fewer employees to open immediately and all by May 11.

As it seeks the endorsement of public decision-makers, the task force is arguing the seriousness of COVID-19’s economic fallout means it’s important to begin the conversation about reopening nonessential businesses now.

Joel Schleicher, task force member and executive chairman of Focal Point Data Risk, said government can’t make businesses reopen or customers start shopping. Still, the group is making the case that conditions are right locally to see how much activity the public is comfortable with.

“It’s taking the lock off the door and allowing people to try,” he said.

City officials, however, said the desire to mitigate business losses must be balanced not only with public health concerns, but with the possibility that increased exposure to the virus could deepen the economic downturn.

“We need to convey to the public that we’ve taken this seriously, and that when they come here … they are coming into a safe place,” Barwin said.

Step by step

Whenever reopening happens locally, officials expect the process to be phased. In other words: don’t expect social distancing, masks or other guidelines to go away soon.

Both county and city officials have expressed confidence that the public will treat COVID-19 seriously after restrictions start to get lifted. Collins noticed that after the beaches reopened for essential activity only, the county did not observe issues.

“Our community’s been doing a phenomenal job of following the directions to maintain social distancing,” Collins said.

City officials have discussed the idea of dedicating some funding to procure masks, temperature scanners and other equipment for local businesses once reopening begins. Collins said that internally, the county is in the process of working out a plan for resuming some in-person services while ensuring employees are still safe.

Prior to the statewide stay-at-home order, city and county officials had differing perspectives on the need to take action locally to close nonessential businesses. The county deferred to the guidance the state was offering, while city leaders pushed for the implementation of more restrictive measures.

The looming expiration of the state order reintroduces the possibility local governments favor different approaches for responding to COVID-19. Already, the city and county have adopted different policies for managing beach activity. Collins indicated the county would continue to prioritize the guidance the state offers, while Barwin said the governor’s recommendations needed to be balanced with local data and input from health experts.

On the precipice of a new phase of COVID-19 response efforts, city and county officials are united in their optimism Sarasota will continue to handle the challenge effectively and sensibly.

“We’re starting to sense Sarasota’s energy and the tenacity that has made this community so strong — which to me bodes well for the recovery,” Barwin said.

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