Moving Past COVID-19 in Boca: Next Steps Being Floated?

We will find out tonight how much solidarity exists among Boca Raton City Council members when it comes to COVID-19 restrictions.

During its 6 p.m. workshop meeting, the council will debate a proposed resolution from Andy Thomson about when it would be, in Thomson’s words, “prudent” based on “benchmarks” to begin reopening recreation venues, from private golf courses to parks and eventually beaches.

A story Sunday in The Palm Beach Post suggested that Thomson wanted the council to formally ask Palm Beach County to rescind its order that closed public and private golf courses, beaches and boat ramps to all but commercial fishermen. Thomson told me that his intent doesn’t go that far.

“I am not open (to changes in restrictions) this minute,” Thomson said. “But it’s important to talk about it in public and let people know that their government is at least planning for it. A spirit of optimism is important.”

At 6 a.m. Monday, Councilwoman Andrea O’Rourke emailed a response to Thomson’s resolution, which she said had “garnered an active reaction” on social media.

O’Rourke acknowledged, “A significant segment of our local population is understandably itching to reopen our economy and recreational facilities sooner than later.” She agreed with the public’s wish to “regain some sense of normalcy” and “enjoy their coveted recreation.”

O’Rourke, though, remained as cautious as she was during last week’s discussion. “I believe we will have best results with a measured, coordinated approach.” She added, “We have invested a long month following current guidelines … I am proud of Boca’s leadership … As we fight COVID-19, we fight our emotions. Let’s do our best not to fight each other.”

On Monday, Mayor Scott Singer emailed similar sentiments. “While federal health experts have outlined a three-phase plan for reopening communities,” Singer said, “South Florida has not yet reached the benchmarks for even the first phase. We will continue to be guided by science and data as we take the most responsible course.”

Singer said, “The day will come soon when we see more of our facilities, restaurants, and public places open again. Whenever that happens, we will need to keep up with the safeguards we’ve been following. We cannot allow our community health to be made worse before we make things better.”

The case for more access got a split decision last weekend when Jacksonville reopened its beaches. Critics said Mayor Lenny Curry acted irresponsibly and noted pictures showing a rush of people. Defenders responded that different camera angles—higher and wider—showed that most people were social distancing.

Some people, Thomson said, “called me an idiot” even for bringing up the idea of reopening any recreational facilities. He responded, “It’s not too early to plan.”

It will be a spirited debate.

News conference

Singer will hold a news conference at 11 a.m. today at Boca Raton City Hall. Joining him will be an official of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and Troy McClellan, executive director of the Greater Boca Raton Chamber of Commerce.

According to a news release, the topics will be “coordinated response efforts” to the COVID-19 virus and “next steps” for the city, including businesses. The participants also will discuss Boca Bash, the annual boozefest that brings boaters to Lake Boca. It is not a city event, and council members have expressed concern about this year’s event in light of the pandemic. The conservation commission helps to regulate navigation along inland waterways.

COVID-19 impact in Delray

Delray Beach officials also have heard demands for more access to recreation. Mayor Shelly Petrolia, though, said helping downtown businesses also is a priority.

East Atlantic Avenue and areas north and south give Delray Beach an entertainment district unlike anything in Boca Raton. Because all the bars are closed and restaurants are limited to takeout and delivery, however, the hit to the city has been profound. Petrolia said that virus restrictions have “devastated” many businesses.

One idea for reopening, Petrolia said, could be to close Atlantic Avenue to vehicular traffic in the evening. That would allow more patrons to dine outside because restaurants could place more tables farther apart. Call it Savor the Avenue Until Further Notice.

Distance learning

classroom

Predictably, distance learning participation is highest at schools in more affluent neighborhoods.

Since virtual classes started on March 31, the Palm Beach County School District has kept a daily tracker of how many students tune in. Among the county’s roughly 175 traditional public schools, participation started well. The districtwide average on the first day was 86.4 percent. Since then, it has declined to 77.8 percent.

Among Boca Raton schools, the best attendance has been at Verde Elementary, which averaged 96.8 percent through Friday. Right behind are Calusa Elementary—95.4 percent—and Addison Mizner Elementary at 94.9 percent. Don Estridge Middle has a rate of 95.2 percent, but it’s a lottery school. Students come from many areas.

These numbers reflect the obvious. More affluent households have laptops for their children and Internet access. Such households tend to have more involved parents, more of whom can work at home and supervise their children.

Participation at Omni Middle also has been high—93.5 percent. Boca Raton Middle has done fairly well, with a participate rate of 83.6 percent. J.C. Mitchell has the lowest attendance rate among Boca Raton’s elementary and middle schools, at 81.3 percent.

The numbers drop off much more for older students. Boca Raton High is at 74.7 percent, Spanish River High is 73.3 percent and Olympic Heights—just outside the city limits—is 72.7 percent. That difference could be because many seniors had completed most of their work and are awaiting graduation, in person or also virtual. Being unable to participate in extracurricular activities such as sports also can discourage attendance among high-schoolers.

Numbers are lower in Delray Beach. As in Boca Raton, elementary schools do best. Banyan Creek is at 87.8 percent, ahead of Plumosa School of the Arts  at 83.4 percent and Spady at 82 percent. Behind them are Orchard View—79.6 percent—and Pine Grove at 69.1 percent.

Carver Middle’s attendance rate is 79.3 percent. Atlantic High is the lowest of any school in either city, at just 68.8 percent.

City officials should follow these numbers. Six weeks remain in the school year, and Gov. DeSantis said Saturday that schools would not reopen this year. Less-affluent, at-risk students will fall behind if they miss the virtual classes and then enter the traditional “summer slide.” There is no guarantee that schools will reopen in the fall. Cities might have to consider resources over the summer to help students whose families are struggling.

Lake Worth Drainage plows forward—despite objections

Despite nearly 2,000 comments from the public in opposition, the Lake Worth Drainage District Board of Supervisors voted last week to seek bids for development rights on some of the agency’s unbuildable land along its many canals.

Critics correctly note that any sale would allow a developer to build 313 homes in the Agricultural Reserve Area that rules otherwise would not permit. Such a sale would undercut the goal of preserving as much farming in the reserve as possible.

In a letter to the Palm Beach County Office of Inspector General, Coalition of Boynton West Residential Associations President Beth Rapaport pointed out that three of the five supervisors filed conflict-of-interest claims because they do business with GL Homes. The company is the most likely bidder for the district’s land. GL is the largest developer in and around the reserve.

Yet only one supervisor, Rapaport said, recused himself. COBWRA, Rapaport said to Inspector General John Carey, is “concerned about the validity of a vote under (these) circumstances.” Property taxes—public money—support the district.

Palm Beach County, Rapaport said, has stated that canals and the land that adjoins them are not eligible for such sales. Even if the district accepts a bid, which could bring the agency $70 million, the county would have to approve construction of the homes.

Deutch named to task force

I wrote last week about U.S. Rep. Ted Deutch, who represents Boca Raton and West Boca, and his own remote working on behalf of constituents.

Since then, President Trump has named Deutch to a congressional task force supposedly advising the administration on reopening the economy. That sounds weighty. Meaning no disrespect to Deutch, though, that appointment may be much less than it sounds.

Trump has created several virus-related task forces. Their work often collides. The congressional task force seems much like the administration’s overall response to the virus—belated, hastily organized and political.

deutch
Congressman Ted Deutch

Thirty-two House members are on the task force. Deutch is one of three from Florida. The others are Democrat Stephanie Murphy, who represents the Orlando area, and Republican Matt Gaetz, who represents the Panhandle. Gaetz infamously wore a mask during debate of an early virus response bill, to mock the seriousness of the pandemic. Then he had to self-quarantine.

The Senate list is even less exclusive. Sixty-two of the 100 members are on the task force, including all but one Republican—Mitt Romney. He was the only Republican who voted in February to remove Trump from office.

According to a White House news release, the lawmakers will provide “guidance” on reopening the economy. As everyone knows, though, Trump takes “guidance” only from himself. The news release said that after a conference all with lawmakers, “President Trump was pleased to hear such positive feedback. . .about the work that the administration is doing to keep America healthy and prosperous.”