Thursday, February 15, 2024

Looking Back on COVID, Boca Museum To Run the Cornell & More

Two years ago, Boca Raton Mayor Singer heard public health experts suggest that, without a quick public response, COVID-19 could kill between 500 and 1,000 people in the city. “One death is a tragedy,” Singer recalled last week. “Five hundred just in Boca Raton is unimangineable. But 1,000?” With vaccines easily available, with antiviral pills coming soon, with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advising that almost all Amercans can go maskless indoors, it’s easy now for some —especially certain state politicians—to second-guess the actions that Boca Raton, Delray Beach and so many other cities took. So it’s helpful to recall how quickly things cascaded during the second week of March 2020.

On March 11, the World Health Organization declared a pandemic. A day later, as professional and college sports shut down over one case in the National Basketball Association, Boca Raton cancelled special events and public classes until April 30. On March 13, the city closed public facilities. Four days later, Boca Raton declared a state of emergency. The city closed bars and nightclubs for 30 days and banned indoor dining at restaurants. City meetings were cancelled indefinitely. Parks were closed a day later. And on March 24, Boca Raton closed “non-essential retail and commercial establishments until further notice.”

Singer said, “I never used the term ‘non-essential.’ But things were moving so quickly, and that’s the term people were using.”

Delray Beach had reacted in similar fashion. It prohibited “non-essential” travel and issued a stay-at-home order. The city went a step further on March 30 with an overnight curfew. Guidance from public health officials, Singer said, “drove everything that we did.”

In retrospect, the biggest problem was not enough clear, consistent guidance. On March 17, Singer said, he called Gov. DeSantis’ office and spoke with the deputy chief of staff about “the lack of clarity on restrictions” that cities could impose. “There was so much uncertainty. You couldn’t get a regular flow of information.” Many city officials complained that the DeSantis administration was harder to reach during this emergency compared to the Scott administration during hurricanes.

Singer gives “great credit” to the city staff amid the early turmoil. They had to buy personal protective equipment. There was no guidance from the CDC on masks. Staff members with children had to worry about remote learning as they figured out, in some cases, how to do their jobs remotely. According to a city spokeswoman, 330 Boca Raton employees contracted COVID-19. Almost 2,000 employees missed time because of having to quarantine after exposure. Despite it all, Singer said, city services never were interrupted.

Some of those employees won’t go back to the office. Administrators found that they could be more productive at home. Some are working hybrid schedules, alternating between the office and home. What had been temporary pandemic changes are becoming permanent or near to it. Example: Council meetings will remain indefinitely at the city complex on North Congress Avenue. There’s much more room to maintain social distancing than in the cramped council chambers. If Boca Raton builds a new city hall, expect the pandemic to influence the design. Though all the pandemic metrics are way down, “The world is not done with COVID,” Singer said. Boca Raton, he said, “has a plan in place” for another variant and a new surge. “It was a trying time,” Singer understates as he recalls those early weeks. And it may come again.

Old School Square amends lawsuit

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The Crest Theater at Old School Square, photo by Carl Dawson Photography courtesy of the Delray Beach DDA

Old School Square for the Arts has filed an amended version of its lawsuit against Delray Beach. The group still alleges that Mayor Shelly Petrolia and commissioners Juli Casale and Shirley Johnson wrongly terminated the group’s lease last August of the buildings that make up Old School Square. The new complaint, however, drops Casale as an individual defendant, though it still names Petrolia, Johnson and City Attorney Lynn Gelin. In addition, this complaint drops as individual defendants Joy Howell and Shannon Eadon. They are, respectively, the former Old School Square board chairwoman and executive director. They left the organization within a few months of each other, and the lawsuit alleges that the termination was a “vendetta” in which Howell and Eadon participated. As before, Old School Square for the Arts alleges that Johnson used Gelin as an “intermediary” to communicate with Petrolia “and potentially other city officials” before leading the discussion that led to the lease termination without putting the item on the meeting agenda. Johnson began the discussion at that Aug. 10 meeting, the lawsuit claims, after getting “seemingly rehearsed questions from Petrolia.” Mediation may happen next month. Old School Square’s attorney revised the lawsuit after comments from the trial judge.

Boca Museum of Art to operate Cornell for 18 months

old school square
Cornell Art Museum in Old School Square; photo courtesy of the Delray Beach DDA

At the March 1 commission meeting, Delray Beach City Manager Terrence Moore pronounced himself “delighted and pleased” to announce that the Boca Raton Museum of Art would operate the Cornell Museum—part of Old School Square—for the next 18 months. To applause, Executive Director Irvin Lippman said the Cornell would be “led by our museum” but would operate “with our partners,” citing the Spady Museum and the Milagro Center. Lippman will hire a full-time director for the Cornell. He envisions an “expanded creative campus” and “including as many people as possible.” The museum has 5,000 students and 35 teachers in Boca Raton. Lippman told me that roughly half of the museum’s members live north of Boca Raton. Petrolia, who previously prided herself on Delray Beach’s self-reliance, called it “very exciting.” Commissioner Ryan Boylston, who opposed the termination, called it “a little heartbreaking.”

Ethics complaints dismissed against Petrolia and Casale

juli casale
Commissioner Juli Casale
Mayor Shelly Petrolia

The Florida Commission on Ethics has dismissed complaints against Petrolia and Casale. Reggie Cox, a former community redevelopment agency board member and political foe of Petrolia and Casale, filed the complaints. They arose from the commission’s decision last October not to award a contract for a disparity study to determine whether Delray Beach discriminates against women- and minority-owned businesses. Staff had been working on the bid for nine months, and the decision came as a surprise. Miller Consulting was the top-ranked bidder. In a letter to the commission, the company called the decision “arbitrary and capricious.” Cox also alleged that Petrolia and Casale had violated the rule against discussing contracts while under bid. The city denied the accusations. The commission found “no legal suffiency” to the complaints because there was no evidence that Petrolia or Casale had received a benefit from the decision. Petrolia, Casale and Johnson—the third vote against awarding the contract—have reversed themselves. The city again will seek bids for a disparity study.

Blue Lake boundaries approved

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Blue Lake Elementary courtesy of the School District of Palm Beach County

At its workshop meeting last week, the Palm Beach County School Board gave preliminary approval to the boundary plan recommended by Superintendent Mike Burke for Blue Lake Elementary School, which opens in August. The board must take a second and final vote at a regular meeting.

Boca loses Mr. D

Annette Mesa, and Jay and Sharon DiPietro

Jay DiPietro, who for 35 years was the president of Boca West Country Club, died March 7 of cancer. During last week’s Boca Raton City Council meeting, Singer noted Mr. DiPietro’s passing and praised him as someone who may have technically worked just outside the city limits but contributed much to the community. In 2017, the volunteer organization Men With Caring Hearts gave Mr. DiPietro its Lifetime Achievement Award. He involved Boca West in Habitat for Humanity homebuilding. In 2011, Mr. DiPietro won two trophies in the annual “Boca Ballroom Battle” fundraiser. According to one news report, 14 tables were cheering for him. Throughout his career, he was known simply as “Mr. D.”

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Randy Schultz
Randy Schultz
Randy Schultz, a native of Hartford, Connecticut, has been a South Florida journalist since 1974. He worked for The Miami Herald until 1976 and for The Palm Beach Post from 1976 until 2014, where he served as managing editor and editorial page editor. Since 2014, he has written a politics blog, commentaries and other articles for Boca magazine. His writing has earned first-place awards from the Florida Magazine Association and the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors. Randy has lived in Boca Raton with his wife, Shelley Huff-Schultz, since 1985. His son, daughter-in-law and their three children also live in Boca Raton.

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