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Business leaders advocate for reopening region

An ad-hoc task force is encouraging government officials to lift some COVID-19 restrictions and allow businesses in Sarasota and Manatee to resume operating.

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  • | 3:20 p.m. April 27, 2020
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As officials on the state and national levels discuss plans for lifting shutdown restrictions designed to reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19, a local group composed primarily of business leaders is lobbying to reopen Sarasota and Manatee counties sooner rather than later.

On April 22, an ad-hoc group calling itself the Sarasota/Manatee Project Resurrection Task Force sent a letter to Gov. Ron DeSantis, state Senate President Bill Galvano and state House Speaker Jose Oliva outlining a series of recommendations for ending Florida’s safer-at-home order and allowing businesses in the region to reopen by May 11. The members of the group include:

  • Dave Bullock, interim CEO of the Economic Development Corporation of Sarasota County;
  • Jaime DiDomenico, owner and president of Cool Today;
  • Sharon Hillstrom, president and CEO of the Bradenton Area Economic Development Corp.;
  • A.G. Lafley, founding CEO of The Bay Park Conservancy and former chairman and CEO of Procter & Gamble;
  • Shaun Merriman, executive vice president at CenterState Bank;
  • Joel Schleicher, executive chairman of Focal Point Data Risk, founder, chairman and CEO of Presido Inc. and President and COO of Nextel Communications Inc.;
  • Dr. John Steele, president of Intercoastal Medical Group;
  • Matt Walsh, owner and CEO of Observer Media Group, the company that publishes the Sarasota Observer.

The task force is recommending reopening businesses with 10 or fewer employees immediately, reopening all other businesses May 11, allowing employees to return to work on a volunteer basis and making businesses responsible for adhering to health guidelines.

In the letter to state officials, the group asks for an endorsement of its efforts to reopen businesses in the Sarasota-Manatee area “in a structured, responsible and rapid fashion.” A statewide stay-at-home order is set to expire April 30.

Walsh sent letters to Sarasota and Manatee County commissioners on Monday asking the locally elected officials to offer their individual support for the proposal. The letter says the task force envisions a collaborative effort between private and public sectors, but one in which the private sector is leading the way. The letter proposes empowering local businesses and chambers of commerce to “work together to shape business models that address the health and safety needs of employees and customers.”

“We want your personal support so we can announce Wednesday ... to the citizens of Sarasota and Manatee counties that the region’s business community is ready to begin the process of reopening responsibly — and that we have the personal support of the members of the two county commissions,” the letter states.

The letter to state officials includes two criteria for evaluating the region’s readiness to lift restrictions: comparing the rate of COVID-19 cases locally to other Florida counties, and comparing the three-day average of COVID-19 cases in Sarasota, Manatee and five neighboring counties.

Because the number of new cases in the seven-county region during the previous three days was below 50% of the peak number of cases so far, the group argues conditions are right to start allowing businesses to operate again.

“In short, we believe Sarasota and Manatee counties are ready to reopen,” the letter states.

In an appearance on CNN today, Sarasota Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch said the city would be cautious about reopening, citing federal recommendations for states that include waiting for a 14-day decline in the number of reported cases. Neither Sarasota nor Manatee meet that criteria. To date, the peak number of new reported cases in Sarasota County is 27 on April 6. In Manatee, 57 new cases were reported April 18, four days before the task force sent its letter to state leaders.

“A lot of the models and matrix show that if you want a strong and fast recovery of your economy, what you need to to do is continue the shelter in place until those numbers start to decrease over 14 days,” Ahearn-Koch said.

Schleicher said the committee developed its own criteria for assessing the region’s readiness to reopen because it did not believe the federal guidelines for states were necessarily the best way to evaluate the conditions in Sarasota-Manatee.

“What happens if you were at five cases, four, three, and then you went to five again in Sarasota County?” Schleicher said. “You might never get to 14 days in a row, depending on where your starting point is.”

The group’s letter makes a series of recommendations related to businesses in Sarasota:

  • Reopening businesses with 10 or fewer employees, reopening medical practices and allowing elective surgery to resume, all effective immediately;
  • Reopening all other businesses effective May 11, creating a window to observe the effects of the first wave of reopening, unless the governor allows all businesses to reopen prior to May 11;
  • Allowing employees to return to the workplace only on a volunteer basis if they feel safe;
  • Making businesses responsible for adopting appropriate health measures, including maintaining social distancing and using face masks;
  • Establishing the task force, local chambers of commerce and economic development corporations as resources for businesses and workers.

It also encourages the state and federal governments to adopt certain policies:

  • Providing legal protection for businesses if employees or customers say they contracted COVID-19 while on the business's premises, provided proper preventative measures were in place;
  • Creating a sales tax rebate for dine-in restaurants through June 30;
  • Establishing a “quick process or mechanism” to allow businesses to exempt themselves “from regulations that inhibit a business‘s ability to experiment, implement new safety and health practices and/or to adapt to market conditions.”

Schleicher said the task force came together after seeing the significant effects COVID-19 had on the local economy beginning in March. Based on initial conversations among members of the group, there was a consensus the recovery process could take longer than initially anticipated. Schleicher said the group was sensitive to the seriousness of the disease, particularly among vulnerable subsets of the population, and said the final recommendations accounted for input the task force received from medical professionals. Still, those involved wanted to devise a strategy for swiftly reactivating businesses hurt by the disease and accompanying restrictions on activity.

Local government officials have also begun to discuss the prospect of reopening portions of the community. On Wednesday, the Sarasota County Commission voted to reopen beaches only for essential activity effective today.

On April 20, at a Sarasota City Commission meeting, officials discussed the need for additional testing and the procurement of equipment such as masks and temperature scanners to ensure workers and customers felt comfortable once businesses reopen. Rich Collins, Sarasota County’s director of emergency services, said county officials would be closely monitoring the recommendations of the governor's state task force in determining how to proceed in the coming weeks.

“Slow and selective are key words I would use when thinking about opening back up,” said Chuck Henry, Sarasota County Health and Human Services director, at Wednesday’s County Commission meeting.

Schleicher acknowledged it is unclear how consumers and businesses will respond to the threat of COVID-19 even if regulatory measures are lifted. Still, he said members of the task force wanted to give people the option of reopening or patronizing local businesses. The task force letter says experimentation will be essential in the process of adapting to new economic conditions.

“We’re trying to be supportive of the Sarasota-Manatee community in ways where we can trial things to see what works and get a jump start on the conversation,” Schleicher said.


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