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Longboat Key Monday, May 11, 2020 2 years ago

What's next to reopen on Longboat Key?

Town Manager Tom Harmer is set to re-evaluate his latest executive order by Friday, but caution is the key word in plans.
by: Mark Bergin Staff Writer

Singles play at the Longboat Key Public Tennis Center resumed Friday morning after a nearly seven-week closure because of concerns related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The decision to reopen the Tennis Center with restrictions came as part of Town Manager Tom Harmer’s executive order, which indefinitely extended many of the town’s closures.

“We're trying to be very careful, taking almost baby steps or that incremental opening,” Harmer said. “We thought the Tennis Center would be a good place for us to start because [there have] been some practices at the Key Club here that have been going on for the past six weeks or so.”

Harmer is set to reevaluate his latest executive order on or before Friday.

Data from the state shows Longboat Key’s 34228 zip code in both Manatee and Sarasota counties each has less than five confirmed cases of COVID-19. It means the town has not had a resident test positive of COVID-19 since the start of April.

It leads to the question: if all goes well at the Tennis Center, what could the town of Longboat Key reopen next?

Beach access parking to remain closed for now

The beach itself in the town of Longboat Key never closed, just the parking at the town’s 12 public beach access points.

“On both ends of us, we have some developments that we have to watch a little bit before we can open up our parking areas,” Mayor Ken Schneier said. “We've been a little bit ahead of the game with full use by residents permitted. We don't want to jeopardize the success we've had by having sort of an influx of people either from Anna Maria or from the Lido side, onto our beaches.

To the north of Longboat Key, Manatee County partially reopened its public beaches on May 4. To the south of Longboat Key, Sarasota-owned Lido Beach remains closed while Sarasota County reopened its public beaches.

“If you listened to the public health official [Chuck Henry, the health officer for the Florida Department of Health office in Sarasota County] on Monday [May 4], he reinforced the point that Longboat Key’s population is a highly vulnerable population due to age and other factors,” Harmer said. 

Some 69% of Longboat Key’s 7,000 full-time residents are older than the age of 65. People who are older than 65 or have underlying medical conditions tend to be at a higher risk for severe illness from COVID-19.

“We’re not interested in opening up our beach access parking when we still have some of the beaches closed around us because we think that’s just going to drive people to Longboat Key,” Harmer said.

Harmer said the town would probably “lag a little bit behind” some nearby municipalities with its reopenings.

The town of Longboat Key decided to close its 12 public beach access points on March 21.

“We want to let some of our neighbors open up some of their amenities so we can evaluate that,” Harmer said. “We don't want to get ahead of that, otherwise they'll come here prematurely.”

Town staff has worked with Sarasota County leadership, which the town falls under during a state of emergency. Longboat Key is in both Manatee and Sarasota counties.

“We are coordinating with Sarasota County and its municipalities. The same with Manatee [County]. It is important,” Schneier said. “I think the only thing I would say has been a little bit of an issue is we probably would wish that Sarasota County and city would get a little bit more on the same page.

"We understand that there are some differences in what they need to focus on, but they’ve been a little bit apart. So that, you know, with Lido Beach closed and lots of other places opening, that's one of the reasons we've been concerned about having people head out there, think it's open, head up our way when it's not. So that’s an issue, but that’ll work out.”

Restaurants and recreational facilities

The town’s restaurants — like others in Florida — can now operate with a 25% indoor seating capacity and with outdoor seating as long as there is at least six feet of space between tables.

“I know it's going to be somewhat difficult for some restaurants to open at a quarter of their capacity. They may not be able to open it all,” Schneier said. “But if we see things moving smoothly and people acting responsibly, hopefully, they're ready for the next phase.”

The town of Longboat Key closed its public recreation areas at Bayfront Park on March 22.

Schneier said the town might consider reopening the amenities at Bayfront Park, but did not have a date in mind as to when that could happen.

“Whether you can unlock pickleball and unlock playgrounds, those are more difficult because they require cleaning and they tend to be more close-quarters than some of these other activities,” Schneier said.

Schneier also mentioned the importance of staff monitoring people playing tennis at the Tennis Center and at the Longboat Key Club.

Singles play resumed at the Longboat Key Tennis Center on May 8.

“That’s one of the key features that we have at the two tennis programs that we don't have at this point up at say Bayfront Park,” Schneier said. “That’s one of the reasons we could do this and feel somewhat comfortable because we have some good rules. I think they dovetail with what the USTA has prescribed also. You know, we'll have some supervision.”

Uncertainty about Longboat Key’s Freedom Fest parade and celebration

Both Schneier and Harmer said it was too far out to predict whether Longboat Key will hold its annual Freedom Fest parade and celebration on the Fourth of July.

Schneier called it the “most crowded event” in the town each year.

“Unless things improve quite a bit, I think that’ll probably not happen, at least not happen in the way that it has in the past,” Schneier said. “It’s followed by, there’s a party in Bicentennial Park next to Town Hall there. 

“The Chamber of Commerce sets up some things. There are lots of games for the kids and prizes and you know, the best-dressed dog contest. But it's a crowded scene. It would be very hard to do it as we've done it in the past and keep people separate. So fingers crossed, but it would take some real improvement to do it, I think.”

Harmer said the town permits the Chamber of Commerce to hold the event each year.

“We’ve been working with the Chamber on their other events that they had planned and I know they’re thinking about the Fourth of July,” Harmer said. “I don't know that they've made a final decision yet.”

Click or tap here to view an interactive timeline of how the town of Longboat Key has responded to the coronavirus outbreak.

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Mark Bergin is the Longboat Key Town Hall reporter for the Observer. He has previously worked as a senior digital producer at WTSP, the CBS affiliate in St. Petersburg. Mark is a graduate of the University of Missouri and grew up in the Chicagoland area.

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