COVID-19 Reopening Is Harder Than Closing

Mizner Park

On Friday, Gov. DeSantis allowed Palm Beach County to enter Phase 1 reopening from restrictions he imposed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Simple, right?

Not necessarily.

Some changes are straightforward. Restaurants and non-essential retail businesses can reopen for table service if they seat no more than 25 percent of their building occupancy as determined by the fire department.

Outdoor dining is allowed if diners observe social distance—six feet between parties – and if parties are no larger than 10 people. Patrons can’t sit at the bar. There go most happy hours. Cities still are working out where that outdoor space might go. Boca Raton is talking about how to allow more for Mizner Park restaurants.

Hair and nail salons and barbershops also can reopen. They must follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines. The same goes for dentist offices, which since March only could offer emergency procedures.

Bars and nightclubs still must offer food and alcohol only for delivery and pickup. Despite a report in at least one newspaper, gyms, fitness center and massage parlors must remain closed.

All these changes come from Palm Beach County pestering DeSantis to include the county in his Phase 1 reopening plan while continuing to exclude Broward and Miami-Dade. But the questions don’t end there.

County Commissioner Robert Weinroth—he represents Boca Raton, Delray Beach and other cities—told me Monday that he continues to get calls about details.

What about pools in private communities? Do they need to hire someone to monitor social distancing? Probably not, but no one knows for sure.

What about golf courses? Can golfers use the driving range? Can they use the putting green? That’s not certain.

And what about fitting rooms in clothing retailers? What happens to the clothes that someone tries on? Should the store put them aside long enough for any trace of the virus to fade? Again, there’s no guideline.

The county commission will meet Friday for another discussion about beaches. Weinroth said he may ask for clarifications in the executive order.

“We are finding out,” Weinroth said, “that it’s much easier to close than to reopen.”

Beach talks


As business owners fight to survive, beaches continue to get a disproportionate share of discussion among local officials. It happened again Monday with the Boca Raton City Council.

The county commission last week allowed beaches to begin reopening on May 18. Commissioners delayed the effective date in hopes that Broward County would reopen its beaches at the same time. No one wants to go first. The Broward County Commission has a special meeting today.

Ultimately, council members reaffirmed their position that Boca Raton at first would allow access to the beaches but not the usual parking. There was much discussion about whether beachgoers would observe the new rules.

City Manager Leif Ahnell finally broke in. “It is not reasonable,” he said, “to think that we can reasonably enforce (the guidelines) without having hundreds of (city employees) when the guidelines are wishy-washy.”

Councilwoman Andrea O’Rourke added, “People are confrontational.” No kidding. Naples opened its beaches last weekend and closed them a day later because so many people refused to social distance.

Elsewhere, Boca Raton will reopen the downtown tennis center. Only singles matches are permitted and locker rooms and showers remain closed. City pools also will reopen, with one swimmer per lane and a maximum of 45 minutes in the pool.

And reopening Delray

atlantic avenue

Like Boca Raton, Delray Beach will not plunge into the city’s Phase 1 reopening.

The city commission met Saturday in special session, one day after the governor’s executive order. Among other things, commissioners considered a list of requests from businesses and non-profits that would augment the easing of restrictions.

The commission did agree to make downtown parking free during Phase 1. The city, though, will enforce time limits designed to turn over spaces quickly and allow places for business customers.

But commissioners declined other requests. They did not create “parklets”—blocked-off portions of streets to allow more outdoor restaurant spaces. They rejected a summer green market and didn’t like the idea to close portions of Atlantic Avenue to vehicles on Saturdays. There will be no valet parking.

Unlike Boca Raton, Delray Beach authorized the reopening of museums and the city library. They also will be subject to the 25 percent limit for stores and restaurants.

As for the beach, City Manager George Gretsas said there likely would not be full parking. Lifeguards, code enforcement officers and possibly police will monitor social distancing and clustering. There will be no surfing. Beachgoers will have to be walking or running. “I’m wary about an influx from Broward,” Gretsas said.

Under the city’s state of emergency, Gretsas retains the authority to rescind the beach opening if people don’t cooperate. Doing so “would depend on the severity” of the violations. He stressed that he speaks each day with city commissioners and is in “good alignment” with them.

More openings

In another sign of reopening, the Palm Beach County Clerk & Comptroller resumed public services at all locations on Monday. As with other public and private operations, there are new rules and procedures.

Customers must wear a mask or other face covering. Plexiglass separates employees and customers. Floor decals indicate social distance. Employees will monitor the lobbies to ensure compliance.

Weddings are now by appointment only at the clerk’s offices in West Palm Beach, Delray Beach, Palm Beach Gardens, Royal Palm Beach and Belle Glade. Ceremonies are limited to the happy couples.

COVID-19 plasma partnership

Boca Raton Regional Hospital. Photo by Aaron Bristol.

Baptist Health South Florida, parent company of Boca Raton Regional Hospital, last week announced a partnership with the Mayo Clinic on a trial of convalescent plasma (CP) therapy for COVID-19 patients.

The treatment involves transfusions from those who have recovered from the virus into some of the sickest patients. According to a news release, Baptist Health already used the therapy on about 60 COVID-19 patients at the company’s hospitals. The Food and Drug Administration approved it on May 1.

With the Mayo partnership, Baptist hopes to “monitor and treat” patients earlier, before they need intensive care or a ventilator. Treating more patients this way could produce more benefits because of the larger sample.

Boca Raton Regional Hospital CEO Lincoln Mendez said, “By partnering with Mayo Clinic, we have the tools to possibly treat non-critical patients with plasma in earlier stages of the virus as well, preventing those with more moderate cases from having to be admitted into the ICU, which can save more lives and reduce the burden on our healthcare staff.”

Anyone who has recovered from COVID-19 and wants to donate plasma can call 1-833-MYBAPTIST.

But what about testing?

Absent a nationwide or even statewide virus testing strategy, local governments are filling holes wherever they can. The Delray Beach Fire-Rescue Department and Delray Medical Center offer another example.

Using $9,000 from private donations and the Delray Beach Firefighters Benevolent Fund, the department bought 150 test kits from the hospital, at cost. Paramedics will administer them to older residents who are homebound or otherwise can’t get to a testing site.

The tests began Friday. Delray Medical will coordinate the processing of the tests.

Testing sewage

Miami-Dade County and many other local governments have begun testing sewage for traces of the coronavirus. Researchers believe that the results could give a more accurate picture of the virus’ spread.

One benefit could be that health officials know sooner than waiting for test results whether an outbreak is widening or shrinking. Those numbers could show whether residents are following social distancing guidelines.

At this point, though, neither Boca Raton nor Delray Beach plans similar tests.

Boca Council takes on tabled issues

For tonight’s regular meeting, the Boca Raton City Council will move a bit closer to pre-COVID-19 times.

Council members will decide the first development issue since meetings went remote last month. This one is minor. The owners of Interstate Plaza—the complex at Palmetto Park Road and Interstate 95—want a rezoning that would allow them to add 16,300 square feet of office space. The new space would be within the existing framework, so the height would not change.

City Manager Leif Ahnell recommends approval.

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