Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Mask Standoff with Florida’s Top Doc & Another Threat to the Agricultural Reserve

It is stunning and yet not surprising that Florida’s top medical officer would refuse to wear a mask when meeting with a state senator.

That senator would be Tina Polsky, who represents Boca Raton and West Boca. Florida Politics was first to report that Polsky asked Surgeon General Joseph Ladapo to put on a mask when he came to her office last week. Legislators were in Tallahassee for committee meetings. Ladapo requires Senate confirmation, which explains the meeting with Polsky.

Ladapo is skeptical of every method to fight COVID-19, including vaccines. He doubts their efficacy, despite having no evidence to support his case. Ladapo especially opposes the use of masks, also against overwhelming evidence.

In August, Polsky was diagnosed with breast cancer. She is scheduled to begin treatment soon. A positive COVID-19 test would force her to delay that treatment. Cancer patients also are much more susceptible to COVID-19. That’s why the virus killed the vaccinated but immunocompromised Colin Powell.

So Polsky’s request should not have annoyed anyone familiar with the virus and public health. But Polsky is a Democrat who supports local mask mandates. Ladapo works for a Republican governor who opposes them. Whatever the reason, Polsky told Florida Politics that Ladapo acted “smug” when she asked why he couldn’t wear a mask and said, as he left, “Sometimes I try to reason with unreasonable people for fun.”

Despite the partisan nature of the encounter, Senate President Wilton Simpson—a Republican—noted that individual senators can request social distancing and masking in their office even though there is no mask policy in the Senate. A sign outside Polsky’s office reads, “Please wear a mask.”

In a memo to all senators, Simpson said, “It shouldn’t take a cancer diagnosis for people to respect each other’s level of comfort with social interactions during a pandemic. What occurred in Senator Polsky’s office was unprofessional and will not be tolerated in the Senate.”

Boca Brightline groundbreaking moved to December

brightline

Brightline had expected to begin work on its Boca Raton station in late summer or early fall. On Monday, a company spokesman told me, “I envision a December groundbreaking based on what I know right now.”

The spokesman did not explain the reason for the delay, though the global supply chain problem has changed the timetable for many construction projects. Separately, Brightline today will hold a media event in Miami to announce Brightline+, what the company calls a “door-to-door booking and mobility fleet.”

The idea is that the company also will provide passengers with transportation from their home to the station and from the station to their destination. This is the “last-mile” segment that city planners talk about. The spokesman said Brightline will offer the service in Boca Raton.

Ag reserve under siege again

agricultural reserve
Image: © Allen Eyestone/The Palm Beach Post via ZUMA Wire

Five months after the Palm Beach County Commission undercut rules to protect the Agricultural Reserve Area, another attempt to undercut those rules may be starting.

The commission will hold a workshop meeting today to discuss allowing more industrial development and workforce housing in the reserve. It’s roughly 22,000 acres west of Delray Beach and Boynton Beach that is the only coastal farming area left in South Florida. In 1999, voters approved $100 million in bonds to preserve as much agriculture as possible.

From the start, everyone understood that the reserve was to be unique. Whatever else was happening around the reserve, inside it the county would keep that commitment to voters. But those who want to build more in the reserve claim that the rules must change to address the county’s need for more industrial space—for jobs—and affordable housing—for workers.

Kushner Companies wants to build a 1-million square foot warehouse on 51 acres in the reserve that are now home to a nursery. That proposal has not had any hearings. But it’s out there, which may explain today’s meeting. A memo to commissioners says, “Staff will present options for (commissioners) to consider regarding industrial future land use designations, suitable locations, and allowable uses.”

In addition, the memo notes that the county “has received multiple requests for private text amendments to increase residential density” within the reserve. Such “private text amendments” come from developers.

Palm Beach County does need more workforce housing. One reason for the shortage, however, is the commission’s unwillingness to strictly enforce workforce housing requirements. Developers now claim that breaking density limits within the reserve will solve the problem. “Options” for higher density are up for discussion today.

In May, the commission allowed the Lake Worth Drainage District to sell GL Homes 276 acres of undevelopable land. In return, GL got to build 313 homes it otherwise could not have built. Commissioners said they had no choice.

Actually, they did. They could have said no. What will they say to these new demands to open up the reserve? I’ll have more after the meeting.

PFAs to be regulated

The Biden administration last week announced a plan to regulate polyfluoroalkyls, or PFAs. The cancer-causing substances are known as “forever chemicals.”

PFAs became an issue in Delray Beach last year. Mayor Shelly Petrolia and City Commissioner Juli Casale asked about removing Rob Long from the planning and zoning board because Long—in his capacity as a member of the Soil and Water Conservation District—had said the city might have a problem with PFAs in the water supply.

Long kept his job. And the Florida Department of Health told city officials that Delray Beach had to test its water for a year to monitor the levels of PFAs. The Biden plan would set mandatory standards for levels of the chemicals and require more disclosure from manufacturers who use them. They are in many common household products.

Delray and building safety ordinance

With the county commission backing down from regulating building safety, it will be interesting to see what happens in Delray Beach.

After the condo collapse in Surfside four months ago, Boca Raton moved quickly. The city became the first in Florida to approve an ordinance that requires inspections and recertifications of taller buildings.

Meanwhile, Delray Beach waited. City officials preferred to see what the county crafted in partnership with the League of Cities. Last week, however, county commissioners said they preferred to wait and see what the Legislature does.

That could be a long wait. Neither Gov. DeSantis nor legislative leaders have indicated that building safety will be a priority for the 60-day session that begins in January. Tallahassee will be consumed with redistricting and abortion.

Even though Delray Beach has fewer buildings at potential risk than Boca Raton, Petrolia has asked several times about the county’s progress, or lack of same. The mayor now has a reason to ask about the city approving an ordinance. The commission’s next meeting is a week from today.

Randy Schultz
Randy Schultz, a native of Hartford, Connecticut, has been a South Florida journalist since 1974. He worked for The Miami Herald until 1976 and for The Palm Beach Post from 1976 until 2014, where he served as managing editor and editorial page editor. Since 2014, he has written a politics blog, commentaries and other articles for Boca magazine. His writing has earned first-place awards from the Florida Magazine Association and the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors. Randy has lived in Boca Raton with his wife, Shelley Huff-Schultz, since 1985. His son, daughter-in-law and their three children also live in Boca Raton.

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