On Friday, Palm Beach County may allow cities to reopen beaches. Even if that happens, don’t expect Boca Raton and Delray Beach to dive in.
During their Tuesday night meeting, Boca Raton City Council members collectively agreed with City Manager Leif Ahnell’s plan for a soft opening. People could use the beaches, but the city at first would not open parking lots and bathrooms. Lifeguards would not be on duty.
The Palm Beach County Commission will hold a special meeting Friday to determine whether to lift the COVID-19 restrictions on beaches. Ahnell’s concern—and that of most council members—is that if Broward County keeps its beaches closed, Boca Raton would be overrun.
Andrea O’Rourke pointed out that some people aren’t even observing rules that came with the reopening of passive parks. Rangers have had to break up games of doubles tennis and pickleball at El Rio Hillsboro Park South. Only singles play is allowed. People are playing five-on-five basketball even though the limit is three players to a court with their own balls. Parents have let children go onto playgrounds, which remain closed.
“It is my hope that Broward opens,” Mayor Scott Singer said. Though all council members understand the pent-up demand for access, fully opening the beaches in Boca Raton would raise many virus-related issues.
Who would enforce social distancing rules that would accompany any reopening? Who would clean the bathrooms and would those employees need personal protection equipment to clean the bathrooms? Would lifeguards need similar equipment?
The Boca council did resolve one issue. If the city reopened beachfront parks and large numbers of people violated social distancing rules, Ahnell could close the parks again without consulting the council.
Delray Beach also is taking a cautious approach to reopening its popular beach.
City Manager George Gretsas, who serves on the county’s beach reopening task force, would not propose a specific response when we exchanged text messages on Wednesday. If the commission lifts the restriction, Gretsas said, “I want to hear the county’s medical rationale and see what the (virus statistics) are.”
“It would be better,” Gretsas said, if Broward and Miami-Dade acted at the same time. “Viruses have no borders, and I think a regional approach is best when dealing with a health epidemic.”
Still, he acknowledged that Palm Beach County has fewer cases. As of Wednesday, Palm Beach had 3,329 confirmed virus cases, compared to 13,085 for Miami-Dade and 5,357 for Broward. “So I understand (Palm Beach) not wanting to wait anymore.”
Just lifting the county order would allow oceanfront property owners again to use the beach. Cities would have to authorize public access beyond someone getting a ride to the beach and walking on.
The subject came up during the city commission’s Tuesday meeting, but there was no decision. Commissioner Ryan Boylston told me that he preferred to drastically limit parking as part of an early reopening. “So it may be,” Gretsas said, “that we agree to open, but we may have additional restrictions, or maybe not.”
Part of tri-county…or not?
At one point, Palm Beach County did seem prepared to reopen in conjunction with Broward and Miami-Dade. That changed on Tuesday.
The commission voted unanimously to ask that Gov. DeSantis separate Palm Beach from the rest of South Florida and allow non-essential businesses to reopen and restaurants to reopen with limited seating. The governor began lifting restrictions for all but this region.
On Wednesday, the governor said he would consider the exemption but made no commitment. Despite having fewer cases than Broward, Palm Beach has had roughly the same number of deaths. Palm Beach’s percentage of confirmed cases also is higher than Broward’s.
Commissioners Robert Weinroth, who represents Boca Raton and Delray Beach, and Hal Valeche, who represents the county’s north end, pushed hardest for the separation request. They accused County Mayor Dave Kerner of acting on his own by saying that Palm Beach would act “in lockstep” with Broward and Miami-Dade.
The exchange among the three got contentious. Kerner said his colleagues’ accusations “hurt my heart.” Commissioner Melissa McKinlay at one point called some of the criticism “bullshit.”
Things didn’t get much better during the public comment that followed. The executive director of the Economic Council of Palm Beach County led off with helpful comments about how her group is ready to help businesses reopen and market themselves. A florist lamented losing Mother’s Day business, the Black Friday of her year.
After that, however, a parade of uninformed conspiracy theorists mostly followed. They demanded that the county allow businesses to reopen and accused the commissioners of violating the U.S. Constitution. McKinlay regularly asked the county attorney for confirmation that the closings are the governor’s decision.
Then there were the anti-vaxxers, ready to oppose a COVID-19 vaccine even before it’s developed. We heard from the lawyer who represented former Florida Atlantic University professor James Tracy. He claimed that the Sandy Hook School massacre never happened.
Weinroth said Wednesday that he pushed for the letter “because of how much food is being given away. These people need to work.” He acknowledged that the long meeting had been messy. “But I like where we landed.”
Still meeting remotely
One observation from the county meeting is that six of the seven commissioners attended in person. Only Mary Lou Berger attended remotely.
Boca Raton has no plans to stop meeting remotely. Councilman Jeremy Rodgers wondered Tuesday whether the city could return to the normal format and still observe social distancing guidelines.
City Manager Leif Ahnell responded, correctly, that the city council chambers are much smaller than the county chambers, thus making it much harder to maintain social distance. The technology, to allow live public comment, has been working.
No council member followed Rodgers’ lead. A city spokeswoman said there has been “no discussion” of changing the format.
Boca loan a long shot
Boca Raton continues to talk about a $500,000 loan pool for COVID-19-affected businesses, but the proposal seems unlikely to happen.
The idea came from the Greater Boca Raton Chamber of Commerce, and council members expressed a wish to help. Then came those devilish details, which Tuesday night’s discussion exposed.
Who would be eligible? The criteria seemed to be businesses with between three and 25 employees that had been operating in the city for 12 months and had not secured a loan through the federal Paycheck Protection Program. Then what?
They would have to show damage from virus restrictions. But how much? Perhaps a 50 percent drop in sales? And would service businesses be included with restaurants and retail? What if hundreds of businesses then applied? Who would check eligibility? Who would enforce compliance with spending on the maximum $5,000 loan? Should the city even be in the loan business?
The project loomed as a big time suck for city staffers already dealing with many virus-related issues. Mayor Singer finally said, “This may be too cumbersome.” Discussion may not be over, but it’s close to over.
Boca wants a test site
City council members would like Boca Raton to have a virus test site.
Singer and others said they had discussed the idea with potential partners. State Rep. Emily Slosberg, who represents West Boca, told the county commission Tuesday that the site at the South County Civic Center—on Jog Road near the Morikami Museum—too far for many older area residents.
The state operates the civic center site. County Commissioner Weinroth said the state was unlikely to approve another location so close. Any site for Boca Raton, he said, would need a private partner.
Boca Bowl details on hold
Not surprisingly, negotiations for a new Boca Raton Bowl contract are on hold. The original, six-year deal expired with last year’s game.
In March, the city, county and ESPN mostly had worked out terms for a new contract. Then came COVID-19. As City Manager Ahnell told the council, no one even knows whether a college football season will happen.