Coronavirus in Boca Raton: Businesses, Boaters, First Responders, and More

Driving through Boca Raton on Friday afternoon, I saw a city somewhere between shutdown and slowdown.

Mizner Park, normally busy with people having extra-long lunches at week’s end, was quiet. Two women who apparently don’t follow current events walked up the Starbucks before seeing the closed sign and turned away. The garages were nearly empty.

Elsewhere, though, parking lots at small businesses and small offices had a fair number of cars. Cars were 10 deep at the McDonalds drive-through on Northeast 20th Street. Tire and auto repair stores were busy.

Things didn’t change much in Boca Raton on Friday when Gov. DeSantis issued his executive order on the coronavirus that applies to Palm Beach and Broward counties. Among other things, the order closed movie theaters, fitness studios and gyms.

City Manager Leif Ahnell already had closed bars and nightclubs, and ordered restaurants to offer only drive-through, delivery or pickup service. He also closed the city’s beaches.

Delray Beach City Manager George Gretsas had closed bars, Old School Square and the library. Gatherings of more than 10 people on city property had been banned. But Gretsas had allowed restaurants to offer table service if they limited the number of diners, and he had kept open the public beach.

Under Friday’s order, though, restaurants can’t offer dine-in service and the beach must close. In a letter Saturday, Gretsas defended his action—and implicitly criticized Boca Raton—after some elected officials had criticized DeSantis for not closing all beaches in Florida before college spring break.

“Most local governments in Palm Beach County,” Gretsas wrote, “manage disasters and coordinate their efforts through a county emergency management system, with the county coordinating with the state, and the state coordinating with the federal government. Understanding this regional emergency management system leads to a better understanding of why only a few cities in Palm Beach County announced certain closings like beaches and restaurants while most, including Delray Beach, did not until (Friday).

george gretsas
George Gretsas

“Viruses don’t recognize borders, which is why the vast majority of cities in Palm Beach County have been coordinating their decisions as a group, led by the Palm Beach County Emergency Management Division and the group has been relying on science and professionals who believe that major closings should be timed properly and coordinated regionally.

“Those (sic) small handful of Palm Beach County cities not only decided to break from the agreed-upon system in a substantial way but seemingly disregarded the impact that they might be having on their neighbors. When one city closes a beach without considering what impact they have on their neighbors, they may actually be helping to spread the virus by funneling their crowds to another beach and undermining the social distancing strategy.”

Delray Beach, Gretsas wrote, “followed the time-tested system that saves lives and respected the concept that we are all in this together.”

And the boaters

On Sunday, Palm Beach County closed all public boat ramps and marinas. As with other aspects of the coronavirus crisis, the irresponsible actions of a few selfish people have now harmed the responsible majority.

Over the weekend, Boca Raton Mayor Scott Singer posted on Facebook a picture of boats clustered around the sandbar on Lake Boca Raton. Despite federal and state guidelines recommending against gatherings of more than 10 people and social distancing of at least six feet, to these people it was just another lovely March afternoon.

It deeply concerns me to see photos like this, and I received quite a few of Lake Boca today. Let me put it bluntly….

Posted by Mayor Scott Singer on Saturday, March 21, 2020

Boca Raton already had closed the city boat ramp at Silver Palm Park. County officials cited the Boca Raton revelers and others in Jupiter and Tequesta when they announced the closings. So anyone hoping to use a public ramp for one of the few diversions left these days is out of luck for the time being.

New safety procedures

First responders in Boca Raton and Delray Beach have instituted new safety procedures during the virus pandemic.

In Delray Beach, anyone entering one of the six fire stations gets a temperature check. If the reading is 100 degrees or above, the person goes home.

Dispatchers are asking more questions. If a 911 caller may have virus symptoms, one paramedic—in full personal protective equipment—goes in alone to assess the patient, a department spokeswoman said. Even when symptoms aren’t present, dispatchers are asking callers to come outside, to minimize exposure to patient and paramedic.

A city spokeswoman said Boca Raton developed its procedures based on advice from an emergency room medical doctor who is on staff. The department implemented them this month, but the spokeswoman cautioned that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was set to issue new protocols on Monday. That recommendation could affect what the city does.

As in Delray Beach, dispatchers are seeking additional information from callers if their case might be a medical alert. They are asking people who complain of virus-related symptoms whether they have traveled.

Also, only minor children can ride with patients to hospitals. The spokeswoman said the department has an “adequate” supply of protective gear.

Similarly, police dispatchers in Boca Raton are seeking more details from callers. According to a department spokeswoman, officers and crime scene technicians now carry “gloves, masks, eye protection and other equipment.” Officers wear gloves when they write traffic violations.

For calls that don’t require a response, the department is asking residents to file reports over the phone. This option, the spokeswoman said, always been available. Now the department is stressing it even more, such as when the matter may be civil, not criminal.

A spokesman said no member of the department has been tested for the virus.

Delray Beach now gives road patrol briefings outside of police headquarters. All reports on the lowest priority calls are done over the phone.

Officers have protective gear, a spokesman said, and sanitize vehicles “multiple times a day.” In addition, all arrests are now processed at the Palm Beach County Jail, not at the city’s police station.

FPL

It might seem obvious to most people that Florida Power & Light has a plan to deal with this emergency as it does with hurricanes. Given all the misinformation and predictions of dark, dystopian days ahead, however, I wanted to confirm it.

A spokesman said the company is “following our well-established procedures for ensuring continuity of service. This includes limiting access to our control centers and power generating facilities to essential personnel only, and putting various processes and procedures in place that are designed to limit the spread of the virus.”

Over the last decade or so, FPL has modernized many of its generating plants. In this area, the new facilities are in western Palm Beach County and Riviera Beach and at Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale. The new plants, which run on natural gas instead of oil, operate with fewer employees than the old facilities.

Brightline

Brightline, which hopes to open a station in Boca Raton this year, last week began operating on what the company calls a “modified” schedule. The company also took several other virus-related measures.

Open seating on all cars will allow social distancing. The company is closing food and wine service at its stations, removing printed materials from seats and stepping up cleaning of trains.

Arts venues

arts_garage.jpg
Arts Garage

Three arts venues have updated their information as uncertainty over the virus lingers.

Arts Garage in Delray Beach has rescheduled all shows that had been planned through April 30. The Kravis Center in West Palm Beach has cancelled the rest of its 2019-2020 season.

Meanwhile, the Wick Theater in Boca Raton still hopes to stage the rest of its 2019-2020 productions and open next year’s season on schedule. An email to patrons went out on Sunday.

Helping hands

As some South Floridians arm themselves and hoard toilet paper, others are being more constructive.

After ending inside meals for its Thursday Hot Lunch and Dinner program, Boca Helping Hands began handing out the same food in packaged meals at normal pickup times. Last week, Boca Helping Hands’ pantry bag distribution went to drive-through service.

Meanwhile, a Boca Raton High School student named Alex Leondis posted on the Nextdoor website that he would run errands and/or pick up mail “for older individuals” in his Palm Beach Farms neighborhood. What a terrific example he’s setting.

Coming up

On Thursday, I’ll look at how businesses are trying to cope with all the closures.