Where Palm Beach County Stands in the Battle Against COVID-19

COVID-19

“This is a proud day in a lot of ways,” County Mayor Dave Kerner said on Friday.

Here’s another view:

Kerner was touting the county’s entry this week into Phase 2 of COVID-19 reopening. This would happen, Kerner noted, ahead of Broward and Miami-Dade counties. Palm Beach, he added, is “doing the best of South Florida.”

A “proud day,” however, would have been the county hitting Phase 2 weeks ago and staying. A “proud day” would have been the county avoiding the surge of cases that preempted plans for Phase 2.

Instead, we got the surge that pushed hospitalizations to dangerous levels. It happened for many reasons, one being that the commission didn’t issue a mandatory mask ordinance as the county was asking Gov. DeSantis to further reopen. The ordinance didn’t pass until June 23.

More people have been following the mandates. A slower reopening and tougher enforcement, though, would have minimized the inevitable increase in new cases and made decisions about reopening schools easier.

Also on Friday, County Health Director Alina Alonso supplied needed reality. The county is entering “a careful, measured reopening,” Alonso said. Such a conservative approach “is critical.”

Alonso also encouraged “everyone” to get flu shots. She urged residents not to believe “the false stories” on social media that claim vaccinations lead to COVID-19.

As I reported last week, Phase 2 will happen in stages. Kerner called them “aspirational goals” that could come earlier or later, depending on numbes and compliance. The timetable calls for completing Phase 2 in November. But there’s a new potential angle. The governor has asked for each county’s reopening plan. Could that foretell a less flexible position by DeSantis as the Nov. 3 election approaches and he pitches Florida as the comeback state?

DeSantis already hurt the state by claiming COVID-19 victory too early. Florida then became a national hot spot, setting a world record for daily cases.

Covid Act Now finally gives Palm Beach County a “slow disease growth” ranking, second-safest of the website’s four categories. For weeks over the summer, the website said the county faced imminent risk of an outbreak.

We’ve been here before. It will take time to determine whether Friday was a “proud day.”

Gretsas update

I’ll get back to COVID-19 topics in a moment. First, here’s more about the case of suspended Delray Beach City Manager George Gretsas.

When the accusation was that Gretsas had created a hostile work environment, former Assistant City Manager Suzanne Fisher was the leading player. A report commissioned by City Attorney Lynn Gelin concluded that Gretsas had tried to fire Fisher because she had complained about him. Therefore, Gelin said, the commission had grounds to put Gretsas on notice that the commission wanted to fire him.

That was in May. Fisher then went on leave. A month ago, she resigned, effective Monday.

Fisher’s contract called for her to receive 90 days pay if she was “dismissed for any reason other than official misconduct.” She also was to get paid in full for all unused vacation days and get 50 percent pay for unused sick time.

So why did Fisher and the city need to sign a separation agreement that specified those very terms? If Fisher resigned voluntarily, why did the city need an agreement that released Fisher from any “claims and demands” against the city?

If the city allows Gretsas to put on a defense at his Oct. 3 termination hearing—on a completely new set of accusations—expect Gretsas’ attorney to mention that agreement.

School restart date is set

COVID

Public school students will return to county classrooms on Sept. 21. Superintendent Donald Fennoy took the extra week that Kerner claimed credit for DeSantis “graciously” granting.

But will campuses be ready?

Several school board members have expressed frustration that Fennoy hasn’t completed a plan for in-person education. The board’s next meeting is a week from Wednesday, just five days before the scheduled return to class.

Board member Karen Bill told me Monday that her big issue is the status of teachers who say they have to keep teaching remotely for health reasons. The union also has raised it. Some districts have declared teachers to be essential workers, thus ordering them to return regarding of medical conditions.

About 70,000 parents responded to the district’s survey. A slight majority want their children in classrooms. So the district will have to use a hybrid system for the foreseeable future, and many parents will remain unhappy, whatever decisions Fennoy and the board make.

Meetings this week

The Boca Raton City Council holds meetings today and Wednesday. The Delray Beach City Commission meets Wednesday. Each may consider further city-specific reopenings under Phase 2. Though nothing is on the agendas, a Boca Raton spokeswoman said, “I assume it would be discussed.”

A new twist in the Latson case

Amid the challenges of reopening, the Palm Beach County School District lost its case against the former principal of Spanish River High School.

An administrative law judge ruled that the board wrongly fired William Latson last October. Last year, The Palm Beach Post reported that Latson — in an April 2018 email exchange with a parent — said students could opt out of otherwise mandatory Holocaust education. Some people, Latson said, did not believe that the Holocaust happened and he had to be “politically neutral,” not correct them.

The resulting firestorm got Spanish River the wrong kind of publicity around the world. Politicians demanded his firing. When the board terminated him, however, Superintendent Donald Fennoy based his recommendation on Latson’s communications failures after the story broke.

But Judge Robert Cohen said Latson should have received no more than a reprimand. Though Latson, Cohen wrote, made “unfortunate choices” — he wrongly accused the parent of lying about the emails — the district should rehire and reassign him because Latson made sure that Spanish River continued to teach about the Holocaust.

The Latson case could come up at next week’s meeting. Board members likely will meet in executive session to decide their response to Cohen’s ruling.

How Lynn is tacking COVID-19

covid

As part of its reopening plan, Lynn University in Boca Raton struck a deal with CVS for quick COVID-19 tests.

The company offers a site on campus dedicated to students, faculty and staff. Results are available in 20 minutes. Those who test positive must self-isolate, and they receive a schedule for follow-up testing.

Classes resumed Aug. 24. A spokeswoman said, “We had a great first week.” After closing the campus to the public, tours for prospective students resumed on Aug. 31.

For the fall, Lynn went to a block schedule. The spokeswoman describes it as “four separate, four-week terms during which students take two courses.” Students can study on campus or learn remotely until they want to come back. The spokeswoman said that about 20 percent of Lynn’s 3,000 students are taking virtual classes.

Theater status

With the county entering Phase 2, filmgoers in Boca Raton and Delray Beach won’t have to leave town.

IPIC will open its theaters on Thursday. The company has touted new cleaning procedures and is cutting prices on its Premium Plus tickets. As of Monday, however, the Living Room Theaters website had not announced plans to reopen. That facility is on the campus of Florida Atlantic University. A message says it will reopen when the virus is “contained.”

Boca park renovations

With all the fixation on the pandemic, one might think that normal business in Boca Raton and Delray Beach is stalled. But much of the work goes on.

Though COVID-19 has delayed release and discussion of the recreation survey conducted by Boca Raton and the Greater Boca Raton Beach and Park District, improvements are in store at the city’s parks. The council recently approved $713,000 for upgrades to the bathroom at Spanish River Park, $269,000 for upgrades to the Meadows Park pool and $303,000 for work at Pine Breeze Park.

And a correction

Correction: In a recent post, I wrote about former Delray Beach City Commissioner Al Jacquet. Last month, he lost his re-election bid to represent District 88 in the Florida House.

In recapping Jacquet’s career, I noted his House campaign in 2016. He and Mack Bernard, who was running for the county commission, went into voters’ homes to help people fill out their absentee ballots.

I then said that State Attorney Dave Aronberg declined to investigate Jacquet and Bernard’s actions. In fact, the office conducted an 11-month investigation, after which prosecutors declined to file charges.