Rodgers Goes Rogue, Boat Ramp to Open & Food Shortages Hurt Overwhelmed Charities

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Boca Raton City Council Member Jeremy Rodgers. Photo courtesy of the City of Boca Raton

On Sunday, Boca Raton City Councilman Jeremy Rodgers misused his office.

Rodgers led demonstrators who traveled between Boca Raton and Delray Beach to protest COVID-19 restrictions. He did so two days before he and his colleagues were to discuss those restrictions—and how potentially to ease them—during a workshop meeting.

Many such protesters around the country have behaved irresponsibly. They have blocked access to hospitals. They have carried weapons. They have invoked junk science, seeking to refute the need for restrictions. On Sunday, some demonstrators aligned themselves with racists and fringe groups that peddle conspiracy theories.

By joining this protest, Rodgers damaged the council’s credibility and his own. He claimed to be acting as a private citizen, but he lost that distinction when he took the oath of office. He appeared to be representing—and speaking for— Boca Raton. In fact, he’s one of five council members.

Rodgers has grandstanded on this issue since the restrictions went into place five weeks ago. During the council’s remote meetings, Rodgers arranges for an American flag to be visible behind him. (Mayor Scott Singer does the same thing.)

During last week’s council meeting, Rodgers laid out his position. “Liberty is essential,” he said. Rodgers called for an end to “restrictions of the healthy” on “the people’s land.” He criticized “overreaching at all levels” of government related to the virus.

Rodgers sermonized again during Tuesday’s meeting. He blamed “the media” for hyping the virus threat. Without naming sources, he cited statistics that he claimed proved his point. “Liberty,” Rodgers said, “is on trial.”

Councilwoman Andrea O’Rourke said, “I have some statistics that speak differently,” but she chose not to engage. The meeting already had run very long.

Rodgers, who is eager to reopen businesses and recreational life as soon as possible, certainly can act as the outlier on a council that otherwise is much more cautious. Collective sentiment Tuesday was to coordinate as much as possible with Palm Beach County, which in turn is coordinating with Broward and Miami-Dade. The goal is to avoid pushing crowds to one area too quickly.

Yet Rodgers should be a responsible outlier. Instead, his Twitter feed includes references to more questionable science about a lethal virus that public health officials are trying to figure out. Guidance even from experts will change. Example: Doctors have found that less invasive techniques than intubation show better results for COVD-19 patients in respiratory failure.

Rodgers is term-limited next March. His last year will go better if he doesn’t seek to undercut his colleagues on the most crucial issue any of them ever will face.

Boat ramp opens

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The boat launch at Silver Palm Park. Photo by Randy Schultz.

For now, Boca Raton is opening its boat ramp.

That was the one virus-related policy change to emerge during Tuesday night’s three-hour-plus workshop meeting. Even that move may not be permanent.

Palm Beach County has ordered the closure of public and private boat ramps, but cities can make an exception for commercial fishermen. Council members have heard from some commercial anglers and want to help them. But the council didn’t want to spend money on a system to ensure that only legitimate commercial fisherman would use the ramp.

City Manager Leif Ahnell said staff could verify which people had a commercial license before the COVID-19 restrictions and which got permits only as means to keep using their boats for recreation. Then a city employee would check everyone who tried to launch.

Such a procedure, Ahnell said, could cost between $10,000 and $12,000 a week. Council members hated that idea. So here’s the plan:

The city will open the ramp. Park rangers will circulate regularly to check whether trailers have a city permit and commercial paperwork.

If the city determines that no one is abusing the privilege, the ramp will stay open. If people aren’t being honest, the council likely will close the ramp again.

And parks and beaches?

Aside from boating, council members batted around thoughts for reopening parks, private golf courses and beaches. There remains general agreement that a decision on the beach would be the biggest and thus likely could be the last to come, if it does.

As Ahnell noted, it’s important to remember which government order has closed what. Though Boca Raton closed its beach parks, the county closed not just all oceanfront parks but also the beach in front of private property. The county also closed public and private golf courses. The city could not act on the beach or golf until the county lifted or modified its order.

On parks, the city has more discretion. If the city opened any, council members want it limited to “passive” portions—not playgrounds or other facilities. Councilman Andy Thomson called them “recreational spaces.” The city would have to trust that residents observed social distancing or assign employees to monitor the “spaces.” Then there’s the matter of cleaning bathrooms.

O’Rourke acknowledged the wish to allow more recreation, but she considers reopening businesses the council’s top priority. The order that closed restaurants to all but takeout and delivery, though, came from Gov. DeSantis. He has asked a task force to craft recommendations by Friday for reopening the state.

Because so much depends on the county, council members wanted to know if the city is being heard as county administrators compile what Commissioner Robert Weinroth calls a “phased” opening. Ahnell assured them that city staffers are closely involved.

On Tuesday, the council heard more demands to start dropping restrictions. As usual, many speakers didn’t have their facts straight. One woman claimed that being outdoors is helpful because ultraviolet rays kill the virus. They don’t.

City Clerk Susan Saxton, however, said emailed comments ran nearly 10 to one against reopening parks and the beach too early. Singer likely summed up the prevailing mood when he said that Boca Raton doesn’t “want to go too early” on anything.

The food crisis

In normal times, the Palm Beach County Food Bank would be distributing 100,000 pounds of food per week.

In these COVID-19 times, the agency is distributing twice that amount and planning for 250,000 pounds.

That’s one of the many metrics showing the new demands on charities from people whom virus restrictions have thrown out of work. Based on current trends, Food Bank Executive Director Karen Erren expects that level of demand to continue for between 12 and 18 months.

Erren points out that the Food Bank does not hand out meals. It distributes food to roughly 125 food pantries and soup kitchens that give out the nourishment. The Boca Raton partners are Boca Helping Hands and St. Gregory’s Episcopal Church. The Delray Beach locations are Caring Kitchen, Eglise de Dieu de Beree, Gateway to Housing, Alliance Primitive Ministries, Our Support for Children in Need and Jacobson Family FP.

Like so many other heads of non-profits, Erren speaks of the new “challenges” the virus has presented. Roughly 90 percent of what the Food Bank sources is donated. As the crisis hit in mid-March, Erren said the agency got “pretty much nothing” from its regular retail picks for three weeks. “Last week was better,” she said, “but it may not be there tomorrow.”

Looking ahead, Erren said the greatest needs are “health for my team and distributors” and “money.” The Food Bank employs 25 people, among them truck drivers. It’s much easier to get food to pantries and soup kitchens than for some of them to make the drive to Lantana.

As for money, the Food Bank just got $1 million from philanthropist Lois Pope. “We talk about agility,” Erren said. “The dollars give us that.”

The Food Bank, like so many organizations, will need lots of “agility.” To donate, go to pbcfoodbank.org

Ocean Strand vote

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At its first virtual meeting on Monday, the Greater Boca Raton Beach and Park District board voted to spend $75,000 on opening Ocean Strand to the public.

The district acquired the 15 acres south of Gumbo Limbo Nature Center from the city. It has gone unused for a quarter-century.

According to a news release, “Initial development will include clearing of the land, installation of benches and the creation of walking trails. Eventually, the project could include kayak launches and restroom facilities.”

The district wants to open Ocean Strand six months after the work starts. Any schedule, of course, depends on what happens with virus restrictions.