Palm Beach County’s COVID Response? Good And Bad

covid

Palm Beach County’s anti-maskers have lost. Consider that one small step for sanity.

On Monday, Circuit Court Judge John Kastrenakes refused to issue an injunction against the mandatory mask ordinance that the county commission imposed to limit the spread of COVID-19. “The covering of one’s nose and mouth is designed to safeguard other citizens,” Kastrenakes wrote. “The mask is no more a ‘medical procedure’ than putting a Band-Aid on an open wound.”

Kastrenakes also implicitly reminded the public that those who oppose the ordinance are uninformed and selfish: “After all, we do not have a constitutional or protected right to infect others.”

Were masks a little late to the party?

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Unfortunately, Palm Beach County didn’t issue that mask mandate until June 23. That was roughly six weeks after the county entered Phase 1 of reopening.

The numbers since that reopening show the consequences of the county commission’s delay.

According to Covid Act Now, the rate of new cases on May 11 was fewer than seven per 1,000 residents, within what Covid Act Now calls the Medium threat range. That number is now six times higher, in the Critical range.

In late May, the positive test rate actually got down near two percent. It’s now between roughly 13 percent and 16 percent, depending on which source you use. Public health experts believe that reopening—especially of schools— should not happen until an area goes 14 days with a positive test rate lower than five percent.

Fortunately, the county’s infection rate is down by about 25 percent since the reopening. Covid Act Now, however, still ranks it in the High range.

Robert Weinroth and I spoke for about half an hour Monday about the commission’s response. District 4, which Weinroth represents, includes Boca Raton and Delray Beach.

We agreed on some things and disagreed on others. We did agree on this comment by Weinroth about the virus: “We lost control of it.”

Weinroth was one of the most aggressive commissioners about reopening. As he tells it, the problem has been too many businesses and people breaking the rules.

The counter argument, however, is that Weinroth and his colleagues presumed in May that they had flattened the curve. In fact, they hadn’t.

Weinroth acknowledged that the county had not met the standards for Phase 1 reopening when commissioners asked Gov. DeSantis to enter it. He acknowledged that the county had not met the standards for Phase 2—reopening movie theaters, stores and restaurants at 75 percent capacity—when commissioners asked the governor to enter it after all of the state but South Florida got the go-ahead.

Given the surge, the county withdrew that request. Weinroth said that no further Phase 2 discussion would happen “for a long time.”

Every credible public health official said reopening would produce more cases. The keys were limiting and managing those new cases.

Commissioners could have approved a mask ordinance when reopening began. They could have instituted high fees for violation. They could have toughened enforcement beyond what the county calls its “Education Compliance Team.”

None of that happened. Only last week did the county close the loophole that allowed restaurants to stay open well after 11 p.m. by taking a big order at 10:45. Now no one but staff can be around after 11.

While not dismissing the new cases, Weinroth said he has focused more on COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths. “We closed down in the spring to keep hospitals from being overwhelmed.”     

Last week, Boca Raton Regional Hospital Chief Medical Officer Samer Fahmy said his staff is busier with virus cases now than in March. As of Monday, 758 people in Palm Beach County had died from COVID-19 complications. In Broward County, where the population is about 500,000 higher, there had been 607 deaths.

We agreed on another key point: The state isn’t supplying reliable information. Most recently, the DeSantis administration blamed a “programming error” for the report that one-third of children had tested positive. The revised rate was less than half that.

“We’re flying blind,” Weinroth said. The woman who created the state’s COVID-19 dashboard has filed a whistleblower lawsuit that accuses DeSantis of using misleading information to justify reopening.

County Mayor Dave Kerner said Friday that the county’s numbers are “stabilizing” Weinroth said, “I think we have turned the corner.” We heard that in May.

The commission doesn’t meet again until late August. Should anything happen before then? Weinroth said, “So we shut down again for another two or three months, and then the same thing happens again?”

Weinroth is offering a false choice. The response doesn’t need to be another shutdown. We need economic recovery. But because the county lost control, recovery is starting to stall. People who had been rehired are losing their jobs again. Even if the county is “stabilizing,” much damage has been done.

Credit Weinroth for taking direct questions and, kind of, admitting mistakes. “Hindsight is 20-20,” he said. Yes, but the public health people were making this prediction two months ago. Perhaps if commissioners had listened, classrooms might be reopening.

Boca tax rate

coronavirus cases in boca raton

City Manager Leif Ahnell is proposing that Boca Raton’s tax rate stay the same for next year.

At Tuesday night’s meeting, the city council will not approve the final rate. But the council must set a limit. The council could set the rate lower when approving the final budget in September.

Ahnell proposes a slight increase in the rate for the operating budget and a slight decrease in the rate for debt service. Even if the overall rate were unchanged, property owners would pay more because of higher values.

Ahnell also proposes no increase in the fire fee, which is at $145. The revenue supplements property tax money to run the fire department.

Boca Airport update

I’ve reported on the dramatic, COVID-19-related drop in commercial traffic at Palm Beach International Airport. What about Boca Raton Airport?

Executive Director Clara Bennett said in an email that the airport, like many private businesses, had been doing very well before the pandemic. Fuel sales and international arrivals set records. The Customs facility, Bennett said, cleared planes from 50 countries, among them Finland, Poland, and Argentina.

When the pandemic hit, traffic went down roughly 75 percent in April and May. Aviation business at the airport “suffered significant declines.”

Remarkably, though, Bennett said all of the airport’s non-aviation tenants—Boomers, Cinemark, Mattress Firm and City Furniture—are “current” on rent payments. That’s the case even though Cinemark hasn’t reopened since closing in mid-March and the other businesses were closed for several weeks. No tenant has replaced the Tilted Kilt sports bar, which closed last year.

Bennett said Boomers is continuing to pay even though the company filed for bankruptcy protection. Last month, the company closed two locations in San Diego.

As for flights, Bennett said traffic in June—as parts of the economy reopened—was up 20 percent from 2019. July is slightly behind.

We talked before the Bahamas modified its ban, because of COVID-19, on commercial air travelers from the United States. The government now will allow American visitors but require them to quarantine for 14 days. The first ban had not applied to private flights. It’s still possible that the airport might pick up some traffic.

BRRH donations

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Boca Raton Regional Hospital. Photo by Aaron Bristol

As the virus surge stresses Boca Raton Regional Hospital, major donations continue.

The hospital announced last week that Sandra and Malcolm Bernard have given what a news release described as a “seven-figure gift” toward the hospital’s capital campaign. Their names will go in the elevator lobby on the first floor of the new patient tower.

Malcolm Bernard was a businessman in Baltimore before the couple moved to West Delray. In 2015, the Maryland chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals named the Bernards as Outstanding Philanthropists of the Year.

Delray Chamber hurting       

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For all the justified concerns about private companies during the pandemic, non-profits also are hurting.

Another example is on today’s agenda of the Delray Beach Community Redevelopment Agency. The city’s chamber of commerce is asking the CRA to suspend until December 2021 repayments toward the $250,000 the agency contributed to build out the chamber’s headquarters. The monthly payments are about $2,000 and the chamber still owes $164,000.

Stephanie Immelman, the chamber’s executive director, said losing Delray Affair was one of many factors hurting the group’s bottom line.