Palm Beach County Makes Decision on Mask Mandate, and More

mask
Photo by Thom Bradley from Burst

Update: In a meeting Tuesday morning, the Palm Beach County Commission voted unanimously to make the use of face masks mandatory in public spaces. The rule will last four months, then be evaluated.

At today’s meeting, the Palm Beach County Commission almost certainly will require masks in most public settings. That rule will apply in Boca Raton and Delray Beach.

Both cities only have encouraged people to wear masks. But Health Director Alina Alonso said new cases have risen more than 200 percent since the county began reopening on May 11. Those numbers align with a sharp statewide increase that has alarmed public health experts.

The PolicyLab at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia wrote, “Florida has all the makings of the next large epicenter … The risk there is the worst it has ever been in our projections.” Restaurants and bars have closed in some parts of Florida because employees have tested positive. Intensive care space in hospitals is shrinking. Miami-Dade and Broward counties issued mask orders in early April.

Though Delray City Manager George Gretsas said compliance with Phase 1 rules has been “good, with some exceptions,” he favors the requirement. “I think that the spike is looking serious and that they should try it and see if it makes a difference.”

Most Boca Raton City Council members expressed similar sentinments at their workshop meeting on Monday. Mayor Scott Singer said he opposed such a rule in April but has changed his mind. He questioned the “enforceability” of such an ordinance, but he also noted that more people began to wear seat belts when it became the law.

Predictably, Jeremy Rodgers was the outlier. He worried about “a slippery slope,” wondering whether the next requirement could be for masks during flu season. Rodgers said the ordinance should come with “data points” to determine when the public no longer needed the ordinance. “Data points,” however, can change quickly. Gov. DeSantis claims that Florida is facing a second wave. Alonso and others respond that the state never got past the first wave.

To help promote and enforce compliance, the county has formed a task force. Boca Raton’s representative is Bart Galletta, a police officer with the Community Engagement Unit.

One recent anecdote proves how effective masks can be at reducing the spread of COVID-19. A hairdresser in Missouri exposed 84 customers to the virus. Because she wore a mask, no customer was infected.

As of Monday afternoon, details of the ordinance were not on the county’s website. Broward County’s ordinance requires all people who work in and patronize what the state calls “essential” businesses to wear masks.

Despite President Trump’s claim to the contrary, Alonso said the virus is “not going to disappear.” Though the median age in Florida of those infected is down to 36 from 65, younger, asymptomatic people can spread the virus. Palm Beach County is about two months late on this requirement.

FAU’s reopening plan

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Photo: Alex Dolce, Florida Atlantic University

Before the Board of Governors decides at today’s meeting whether to approve Florida Atlantic University’s COVID-19 reopening plan, the members may have to translate it.

For students, faculty and staff, the plan “builds cascading enabling drivers for our complex environment.” FAU will “leverage creative ways to deliver classes in a variety of alternative nodes.” There will be a “multi-tiered methodology” and the plan will be “a living document that continues to evolve” through “stages of resumption strategies.”

Translated, FAU wants to get as many students back onto campus in August as possible and wants as much classroom instruction to resume as possible. “Remote work,” however, will “remain fundamental.”

There will be a “shift in campus culture” when students come back. FAU will “promote healthy behavior” and a “shared responsibility” for community health.

Specifically, FAU will require face masks in classrooms. Teachers can remove students who don’t comply. Dorms will be at 96 percent of capacity. On-campus programs will “operate with physical distancing based on the function.” FAU will work with the Florida Department of Health to create a contact tracing system for new cases, to prevent widespread transmission.

The priority for on-campus instruction will be classes that require the most involvement with teachers, such as labs. Desks will be arranged to allow social distancing. Plexiglass sneeze guards will be installed throughout the campuses. FAU has designated 112 spaces in Boca Raton and 12 in Jupiter to isolate students who get COVID-19.  

No event can involve more than 50 people. That rule doesn’t apply to athletics, but a decision on that will come “later.” FAU first must hear whether Conference USA and the National Collegiate Athletic Association even want to attempt a fall sports schedule. Dr. Anthony Fauci last week questioned whether football could resume safely in the fall, based on the rising numbers of new cases.

FAU will allow employees to donate vacation time to colleagues who might contract the virus and miss work. Employees will have to submit forms stating essentially that they are virus-free when the year starts.

Reopening will proceed in a “controlled manner.” All university leaders, however, surely understand that the key will be when these plans meet the reality of reopening. How will they and their students react when the new cases come?

As heavyweight champion and noted philosopher Mike Tyson put it, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” FAU’s plan will depend on how the university will react when the virus starts punching.

CARES Act money

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Palm Beach County Inspector General John Carey announced last week that his office would oversee spending of the $261 million that the county received from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

The county has designated $60 million of its allocation for business grants — $50 million to those with 25 or fewer employees and $10 million to larger companies. Carey’s office will randomly interview businesses that received money to see if they are complying with rules for its use.

Carey’s office also will investigate complaints of waste, fraud and abuse. Anyone who wishes to report alleged misuse of CARES money can call 1-877/283-7068 or use the agency’s website: inspector.pbcgov.org.

Air travel still down

Though commercial airline bookings have begun to recover, the numbers remain far below pre-COVID-19 levels. To appreciate how hard the virus hit the industry, a county airports official recently told commissioners that at the low point, Palm Beach International Airport saw between eight and 15 flights per day. The normal number would be roughly 100.

Delray CRA budget

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The Delray Beach Community Redevelopment Agency will hold a workshop meeting today on its budget for next year.

Two major CRA projects are proposed. One is to “activate” Northwest Fifth Avenue and costs $3.5 million. The other is for the Carver Square and Corey Isle affordable housing projects. They would cost $9.5 million.

As in past years, there will be much discussion about expenses the CRA would pay at the city’s request. Some notable requests are $5.2 million for Phase 2 of the Osceola Park improvement plan and $2.5 million toward the Pompey Park master plan.

The city also is proposing a roughly $400,000 increase in the Clean & Safe Program for downtown. The program includes 10 police officers assigned to downtown, code enforcement officers and other costs. If the CRA agreed to the increase, the program’s total cost for 2020-21 would be $2.78 million.

Boca traffic fix

After tonight’s city council meeting, Boca Raton will be one step closer to fixing a downtown traffic irritant.

Neighbors have complained for years about the so-called “slingshot” right lane of South Federal Highway and Southeast Mizner Boulevard. They claim that it allows drivers to speed as they hit the boulevard. A deal with the state to make it a standard, right-turn lane is on the meeting agenda.

Boca ranks high

phase 2 reopening

Financial website Wallet Hub just released the latest of its regular surveys. This one found ranked Boca Raton third-best of 145 “beach towns” in the United States.

Boca Raton ranked behind Naples and Lahaina, Hawaii. Both fit more easily into the “town” designation, with respective populations of roughly 23,000 and 12,000. With about 100,000 residents, Boca Raton is more like fourth-ranked Newport Beach, California, which has a population of 85,000.

WalletHub ranked Boca Raton fifth for weather and 13th for its economy, but the city was a surprising 85th in security. Most likely, the murder of Evelyn Udell dropped the city’s ranking. Ms. Udell was killed last September by a man who had come to deliver a washer and dryer. 

The other Florida cities in the top 10 were Sarasota—sixth—and Vero Beach —10th.

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