Reopening Blues Set In as COVID Numbers Rise

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As Palm Beach County awaits permission to enter Phase 2 of COVID-19 reopening, the numbers during Phase 1 are going in the wrong direction.

On Sunday, the county saw 391 new cases — a one-day record. Statewide, new cases also are at record daily levels. According to the Agency for Health Care Administration, hospitals in Boca Raton and Delray Beach are using more intensive care beds. That’s a key metric in measuring the virus spread. Deaths did decline, to only six statewide.

Not coincidentally, Delray Beach City Commissioner Ryan Boylston told me that he spent last week reviewing videos of restaurants that residents believe are failing to comply with limits of 50 percent on indoor dining space. Boylston also is hearing that staff at some restaurants aren’t wearing masks.

Meanwhile, reopenings continue. On Monday, Boca Raton reopened the boardwalk at Gumbo Limbo Nature Center. The city also allowed used of athletic fields by groups of no more than 50 people, including those on the sidelines. Team sports are not yet permitted. Playground parks remain closed under a county order.

Gov. DeSantis dismisses Florida’s inclusion among states showing the highest amount of new cases since reopening began. The governor attributes the numbers to more testing. The Miami Herald, however, reported that testing declined after June 5, when reopening began.

Every credible study shows that widespread use of masks in public spaces reduces the virus spread. A Columbia study concluded that infections could drop by 80 percent. Boca Raton and Delray Beach strongly encourage such use. They haven’t made it mandatory, for the practical reason that it would be very hard for the cities to enforce such a requirement. Private business can require patrons to wear masks.

Responsibility for compliance thus falls mostly on the public. Masks are not designed to protect the wearer. They are designed to keep the wearer from spreading the virus if he or she is an asymptomatic carrier. Anyone who has the virus or is awaiting a test result, of course, should stay home.

The governor has no fallback if the virus rebounds strongly. He’s ignored his own task force in approving reopenings. The Trump administration watered down reopening guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Similarly, Palm Beach County officials are looking past the new numbers and continuing their request for Phase 2. Public health experts and economists have warned that moving too quickly will hurt business because public confidence will suffer.

A city spokeswoman said Boca Raton has been getting five to 10 reports of “non-compliance” a week. “They range from social distancing issues to overcrowded restaurants and people not wearing masks. Some are referred to code enforcement for investigation, and others are unenforceable but reflect a need for continuous public education.”

Boca Raton and Delray Beach continually stress compliance. According to a spokeswoman, Boca Raton will step up the city’s “public education efforts” on social media. The city also is working on a reopening campaign that will address social responsibility and safety efforts in this new normal.

CDC Director Robert Redfield said last week that the message to be cautious “is not resonating.” He was speaking nationwide, but he might have meant South Florida.

Delray firefighters test positive

City Manager George Gretsas told me that three Delray Beach firefighters had tested positive for the virus. As to their condition, “So far, so good.”

Vince Canning leaves

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COVID-19 restrictions have claimed one of Delray Beach’s oldest stores.

Vince Canning Shoes on Atlantic Avenue will close at the end of the month. Owner Mark Denkler told the South Florida Sun Sentinel that virus restrictions during the heart of high season and virus-related supply chain disruptions were more than the nearly 70-year-old business could handle.

Denkler isn’t leaving. He will shift the Canning trade to another shoe store on Atlantic called Tootsie’s.

West Atlantic Update

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Delray Beach City Hall (Photo by Christiana Lilly)

At today’s meeting, the Delray Beach City Commission will discuss the updated redevelopment plan for West Atlantic Avenue. The city defines the target area as roughly 1,000 acres of the northwest and southwest neighborhoods that are home to roughly 20 percent of the city’s residents, most of them African-American and Haitian-American.

The latest update, which the commission must approve, is expected to focus especially on affordable housing. “There is a lot of work to do,” the report says, “to bring equity to this community so that it can share in the bounty of its successful city.” Given the George Floyd protests, I would expect a very long discussion.

Abruzzo pops up  

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Joseph Abruzzo

Palm Beach County’s Democratic machine pulled a fast one last week with one of the county’s constitutional offices.

Clerk and Comptroller Sharon Bock is retiring after four terms. It appeared that the office’s chief operating officer, Shannon Chessman, would succeed Bock. Chessman already had the incumbent’s endorsement. The clerk’s main job is to be custodian of court records. The offices also perform civil marriage ceremonies.

Chessman had no opposition—until Thursday, the day before qualifying ended. Then former state representative and state senator Joseph Abruzzo announced his candidacy. Abruzzo is an ally of State Attorney Dave Aronberg, who fancies himself much more of a political player than his two predecessors. Other Democrats—among them County Commissioner Robert Weinroth— also had lined up behind Abruzzo.

Unlike Chessman, Abruzzo has no relevant experience. If that doesn’t seem to matter in an office with relatively straightforward duties, consider the debacle that followed the election in 2004 with Arthur Anderson as supervisor of elections.

Former U.S. Rep. Robert Wexler targeted Theresa LePore because of her “butterfly ballot” that likely cost Al Gore the presidency in 2000. Anderson was an amiable school board member, but he was so inept at running elections that voters turned him out after one term. County officials had to help pull off the 2008 general election.

In 2016, longtime Property Appraiser Gary Nikolits resigned. He tapped top assistant Dorothy Jacks to succeed him. Despite a primary challenge from another prominent county Democrat, Shelley Vana, Jacks won. The office continues to run as smoothly as it did under Nikolits.

During Abruzzo’s 10 years in the Legislature, he used the office to pick political fights. Most notably, he asked for an audit of the Delray Beach Community Redevelopment Agency. Abruzzo was in the state Senate, but his district didn’t include Delray Beach. He asked Jeff Clemons, who did represent the city, to request the audit, saying it was routine.

In fact, the request was anything but routine. The city was debating what to do with the public space that became Arts Garage. Abruzzo worked for the Boca Raton law firm that was working on behalf of another firm that wanted the space. The Boca firm involves itself heavily in county elections.

To get a job that pays about $170,000, Abruzzo only must defeat a write-in candidate in November. When you hear Democrats call themselves the party of good government, mention the clerk’s race.

More election news

In other election qualifying news:

Florida House District 89, which includes Boca Raton and part of Delray Beach, will feature a rematch from 2018, when Republican Mike Caruso defeated Democrat James Bonfiglio.

In House District 91, which includes West Boca and West Delray, incumbent Emily Slosberg gets a challenge in November from Republican Saud Hussain. District 81, which runs from deeper West Boca to the Glades, has two primaries on Aug. 18. The Democrats are Michael Weinstein and former Rep. Kelly Skidmore. The Republicans are Saulis Banionis and Silmo Mura. The winners will meet in November.

Democrat Tina Polski, the District 81 incumbent, is leaving the seat to run for Florida Senate District 29. Her opponent in the primary is former legislator Irv Slosberg. The winner will face Republican Brian Norton.

Senate District 31 includes Delray Beach and West Delray. Incumbent Lori Berman, a Democrat, will run against Republican Tami Donnally.

With Aronberg and Sheriff Ric Bradshaw—the most powerful officeholders—assured of another term, the most interesting countywide race is for elections supervisor. Gov. DeSantis appointed Wendy Sartory Link, a longtime Republican, after the governor removed Susan Bucher. Link then changed parties and will face Paulette Armstead in the winner-take-all Democratic primary. No other candidates qualified.

Finally, there will be contested races in two of three Greater Boca Raton Beach and Park District seats on the ballot.

Seat 3 incumbent Erin Wright faces Nancy-Jo Feinberg on Aug. 18. Seat 5 incumbent Steven Engel has two challengers—Eric Pendergraft and William Vale, who ran unsuccessfully for county commission in 2018. If no one gets more than 50 percent on Aug. 18, the top two finishers will be matched against each other in November. Seat 1 incumbent Craig Ehrnst won a new, four-year term without opposition.

Boylston settlement

Delray Beach Commissioner Ryan Boylston

I had written about Delray Beach City Commissioner Ryan Bolyston’s proposed settlement with the Florida Commission on Ethics. As a member of the Downtown Development Authority board before his time on the commission, Boylston voted to approve a budget that included money for advertising in a newspaper that Boylston co-owned.

At its June 5 meeting, the commission approved the settlement. Here is the panel’s statement:

“The agreement … finds Mr. Boylston violated ethics statutes by doing business with the Downtown Development Authority and by having a conflicting contractual relationship by virtue of the business agreement. A civil penalty of $2,000 will be recommended for imposition by the governor for those violations.”