At today’s meeting, the Palm Beach County Commission almost certainly will ask Gov. DeSantis for permission to begin Phase 2 of reopening from COVID-19 restrictions. Almost certainly, DeSantis will approve it. Quickly.
Commissioner Robert Weinroth, whose district includes Boca Raton and Delray Beach, will be fine with that.
“I am satisfied,” Weinroth told me on Friday, that “the evidence supports” the Phase 2 request. Let’s look at the metrics in advance of Palm Beach County Health Director Alina Alonso’s presentation to the commission.
According to the Florida Department of Health, the county’s positive test rate was 5.5 percent for the most recent week and has been trending down for several weeks. Though DeSantis has set a baseline standard of 10 percent, the World Health Organization and most credible American public health experts believe that two weeks of a test rate at five percent or below offers adequate community protection before new reopenings, especially returning students to classrooms.
In addition, other COVID-19 tracking websites consistently have shown the county and state rates higher, though they agree on the downward trend. The number of new cases also is way down from surge levels in July. So are hospitalizations.
Yet as public health officials point out, those improved numbers remain higher than the metrics in mid-May, when the county began reopening under Phase 1. New cases spiked. The commission quickly withdrew its request for Phase 2.
So what’s different now? What would prevent another surge, especially as experts call a rise in cases “inevitable” as counties further relax restrictions?
“I think there is more acceptance of the need to wear masks,” Weinroth said. “I see that anecdotally.” The Pew Research Center confirms that mask-wearing nationally increased between June and August. The county issued a mask mandate on June 23. County Administrator Verdenia Baker wants it to remain if the county enters Phase 2.
Baker recommends a five-step process. In the first, which would take effect next Tuesday, movie theaters could open at 50 percent of capacity and playhouses at 33 percent. Restaurants would stay at 50 percent, though they could resume serving food at the bar. Stores and gyms could open at full capacity. So could museums and libraries.
Step 2 would be the reopening of school campuses. This will be the most controversial issue. Baker says the commission is “recommending” that the school board “consider” reopening three or four weeks after Phase 2 begins.
There’s more hedging, clearly to avoid—if possible—the perception that the commission is telling the board what to do. The school district and county health department, Baker says, “should gather and analyze health metrics data to determine any public health impact of this step of re-opening. Palm Beach County will continue to gather and analyze countywide health metrics data to monitor for significant resurgence or any negative public health impacts of steps 1 and 2.”
Step 3, on Oct. 19, would reopen auditoriums, bingo parlors, comedy clubs and “concert houses.” After that, the county would “gather and analyze” the health metrics to determine whether there has been “little or no significant resurgence” of COVID-19.
If the county didn’t see a repeat of June and July, Step 4 would start on Nov. 2. Movie theaters could operate at 75 percent of capacity and playhouses at 66 percent. If Step 4 went well, the county would ask DeSantis to further reduce restrictions on entertainment venues, which would allow the reopening of nightclubs, including strip clubs.
Baker stresses that the plan turns on whether “resurgence is a factor.” Bars, a major source of infection, remain closed under an order from the Department of Business and Professional Regulation. Strict enforcement would have to accompany every step of Phase 2 reopening.
The county already requested permission for tattoo parlors and tanning and body piercing salons to reopen. Oddly, movie theaters in Broward County opened last week, even though Broward also remains in Phase 1. What gives?
Broward allowed theaters to reopen if they follow a set of county guidelines. “It makes me wonder,” Weinroth said, “if anyone is looking at this regionally. It looks like every county for itself.”
Well, yes. This is the result of what DeSantis claims is a “surgical” county-by-county approach that has ignored the risk to regions and the state. Last week, DeSantis even questioned the wisdom of widespread testing, which health experts consider critical to containing new outbreaks.
On Monday, DeSantis got help in spreading that message. Steve Atlas, the newest member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, told reporters in Tallahassee, “There is nothing to fear.” Atlas is a doctor, but he has no background in epidemiology or public health.
Like Weinroth, County Mayor Dave Kerner said COVID-19 metrics have reached “acceptable levels.” Not all their colleagues agree. More important than the request for Phase 2 will be the plan to stop a new surge. I’ll update after Tuesday’s commission meeting.
What will Boca and Delray do?
Boca Raton and Delray Beach will face decisions under Phase 2 reopening. The governor’s guidelines state that in-person city council and commission meetings “should resume,” with attendance limits of 50.
Delray Beach reopened its library months ago (although it is closed now until Sept. 8 for a 14-day quarantine after a positive COVID case.) Boca Raton is still offering only curbside pickup. Both cities have meetings scheduled for next week.
Speaking of Delray Beach’s library, the community redevelopment agency last week approved the library’s request for $443,000 toward next year’s budget.
In Boca Raton, the library is a city department. That’s the usual setup. In Delray Beach, the library is a non-profit with a separate board. That makes it easier for the library to get funding from the CRA, as other non-profits do. The chamber of commerce is another example.
Every year, though, elected officials—who now act as the CRA board—urge the library to seek other revenue. But where else would it come from? Eighty-two percent of the library’s budget comes from the city and the CRA.
Given the pandemic, no one wants to cut the library off. But the budget may be worse next year, which could mean facing hard questions on the library.
Weinberg rocks the zoning board
The applicant for the Delray Beach Planning and Zoning Board acknowledged that he had lived in the city for only about three years. But he wanted to serve “with an eye to future growth and livability of the city.”
He listed as occupation as “entertainer,” but noted that he had appeared before planning boards in four states. He had been a developer of sorts and understood the process.
So Max Weinberg got his appointment last month. “Entertainer,” of course, understates the career of the man who has been Bruce Springsteen’s drummer since the mid-1970s and was music director for “Late Night” and “The Tonight Show.” Of local interest, he has performed at Arts Garage fundraisers.
Even when normal meetings resume, turnout at planning and zoning board meetings will be a bit smaller than those for the E Street Band. But Weinberg will be a frontman.
Space of Mind expands
No doubt in response to COVID-19-related uncertainty at many schools, Delray Beach-based Space of Mind is expanding to Boca Raton.
I wrote about Space of Mind founder and CEO Ali Kaufman in a Delray magazine article about innovators in Delray Beach. She conceived the school a decade ago as one for children whose circumstances don’t fit the traditional education model. That can include, among others, students with learning issues or those who want to work academic schedules around their focus on training for a sport.
In a news release, Kaufman said her new concept will be SOMspace, which she calls “a co-learning community for homeschoolers, distance learners and enrichment seekers. The campus will be off Boca Rio Road just south of Glades Road. It opened on Monday.
Kaufman said SOMspace will take students from kindergarten through high schools and will offer scholarships and aid and is accepting members in grades K-12 “so that families of all income levels have the opportunity to participate.” SOMspace also will teach parents how to homeschool their children.
The release quoted Kaufman as saying, “At Space of Mind, we practice and teach that social justice is a national need and we recognize that Americans at all demographic levels need choice, diversity and inclusion for a balanced, complete and compassionate education.” For more information, visit findspaceofmind.com.
Help Helping Hands
Boca Helping Hands needs help.
Students who spent the summer distributing food are going back to class. So Boca Helping Hands is asking for volunteers to fill the gap. Though the economy is recovering, many people in our area need food and may be facing eviction.
Boca Helping Hands has shifts available between 8:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. at its East Boca location Monday through Saturday. Volunteers can work at the Boynton Beach location from 9:30 to 12:00 p.m. on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. Volunteers will register clients and help serve food.
Both locations are drive-through operations that adhere to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention social distancing guidelines. Volunteers must wear masks and their temperature will be taken. For information visit http://www.bocahelpinghands.org/volunteer
Correction: In last Thursday’s post about Delray Beach’s water problems, I cited a memo from then-City Manager George Gretsas in which he sought to fire the manager of the city’s water treatment plant. The memo was from the deputy director of the Utilities Department and was sent to Gretsas.