The Coronavirus Effect: Panic Buying, Voting, and Potential First Case in Boca?

Boca Raton Regional Hospital. Photo by Aaron Bristol.

On Friday, the Greater Boca Raton Chamber of Commerce held a members’ breakfast. The chairs were at least six feet apart.

That’s just one small example of how the coronavirus became real last week. It continues to move at what Troy McClellan, the chamber’s executive director, correctly called “warp speed.”

By Friday, Boca Raton had cancelled most city-related activities and gatherings through April 30. For now, city council meetings are scheduled to go on, but that will depend on guidance for adhering to the state’s open-meetings law if residents can’t attend. Like other governments and businesses, Boca Raton has stepped up cleaning of city facilities, including City Hall.

The city’s libraries—one of which is an early voting site —remain open. When I visited the Downtown Library last week, some employees wore gloves. The beach remains open, though Fort Lauderdale, Miami Beach and Hollywood have closed theirs. Fort Lauderdale and Miami Beach had been hosting college students on spring break.

Also on Friday, Delray Beach declared a state of emergency, even though the city has no confirmed coronavirus cases. Warp speed indeed.

On Thursday, Stephanie Immelman—McLellan’s counterpart at the Delray Beach Chamber of Commerce—said, “The streets are still busy. No meltdown yet.” The chamber board hadn’t decided whether to cancel Delray Affair. A day later, that event—scheduled for April 3-5—was off, along with Savor the Avenue.

The city wasn’t done. On Monday, Delray Beach closed all community centers and museums “until further notice.” The library also will close. City Hall, the beach and all parks will stay open for now. All city advisory board meetings also were cancelled. City commission meetings remain on the schedule.

For those still seeking a diversion, the closings cascaded. In my Thursday post last week, entertainment venues were set to remain open.

On Saturday, however, the Wick Theater in Boca Raton said it would close after Sunday’s performance with no date for reopening. An email asked patrons for their “kindness and understanding during this uncertain time.”

A day earlier, Arts Garage in Delray Beach announced that it would close through March 26. Management hopes to reschedule those events. The Kravis Center in West Palm Beach suspended operations through March 30. Other suspensions included youth and adults sports leagues.

Over the weekend, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended nationwide postponements or cancellations of events with 50 or more people. That further spooked industries most at risk from the pandemic.

McLellan said Friday that the chamber’s hotel and restaurant members are “extremely concerned, and that’s an understatement. They’re all feeling it.” The co-owner of Boca Raton’s Pavilion Grille told the New York Times that cancellations began coming Tuesday and didn’t let up.

Boca Raton Mayor Scott Singer encouraged restaurants to use “safe spacing.” But that came before President Trump on Monday recommended against “gatherings” of more than 10 people. Some restaurants are changing their business model. Twentytwenty Grille, for example, is starting takeout service.

Businesses most value “certainty,” McLellan said, of which there is very little. The belated, contradictory response of the Trump administration has exacerbated local and national uncertainty.

So the chamber, McLellan said, will try to “offer protocols” to businesses that don’t have large human resources departments and otherwise “provide some calm.”

Outbreaks end, and so will this one. Calm, though, feels a long time off.

And in our backyard

On Saturday, a woman who lives in Boca Raton’s Royal Palm Yacht and Country Club neighborhood posted this on the Nextdoor social media website:

“Please help we cannot get testing for family members even after my husband has been the first patient to be admitted to Boca community hospital! Can someone please help me?”

The post did not mention whether the husband had had a positive coronavirus test. So on Monday morning, I asked Boca Raton Regional Hospital if it was treating a patient who had contracted the virus. It would the first case in Boca Raton or Delray Beach. Here is part of the statement I received at 6:27 p.m.:

“Like many health care systems, Baptist Health (Boca Regional’s parent company) is seeing an increase in the number of cases that meet the Florida Department of Health’s criteria for testing for COVID-19. We are following the (CDC) guidelines in caring for these patients.

“Some patients are able to self-quarantine, and others may need additional care, according to their condition. Due to patient privacy laws, we are unable to comment on specific cases(s).”

The Florida Department of Health has drawn criticism for releasing little information about confirmed cases. I’ll have more as this develops.

Panic buying

By now, many Boca Raton and Delray Beach residents have their own stories about the panic buying that has depleted grocery stores. Here’s mine:

Our neighborhood went ahead with its annual picnic on Saturday. My wife had to pick up the hamburgers from the downtown Publix on Camino Real.

The meat department was packed. When an employee brought out the order, shoppers tried to take the individual containers of burgers. One woman had fashioned a homemade Hazmat suit. The employee finally explained that it was an advance order.

And we thought it got crazy during hurricane season. As someone said, toilet paper is the new plywood.

Test sites on tap

In an email Monday, Palm Beach County Commissioner Robert Weinroth—who represents Boca Raton and Delray Beach—said more drive-through coronavirus test sites will open soon in this area.

Only one such site operates now. The operator is Foundcare, a non-profit. The site is at 2330 S. Congress Avenue in West Palm Beach. Anyone interested should call 561/967-0365. Only residents who experience symptoms will be eligible for the test.

Update:

As of Tuesday, March 17 at 11:15 a.m., Foundcare is no longer taking appointments for COVID-19 testing at its drive-thru location in West Palm Beach. In a media advisory, Foundcare released the following statement:

“FoundCare has been overwhelmed with calls for appointments, and individuals have been showing up without following required screening protocols and confirmed appointments.”

“’Currently, we have scheduled appointments through April 10,’ said Yolette Bonnet, CEO of FoundCare. ‘Until we receive additional test kits, we are unable to further schedule any testing appointments. We ask for the public’s understanding during these uncertain times. We will announce if we are able to resume testing as soon as those kits become available. In the interim, we will not see anyone for testing if they do not have a confirmed appointment. You will be turned away.’”

For more information, visit https://foundcare.org/news/225-covid-19-testing-status

Primary still on

vote election

Though Palm Beach County Supervisor of Elections Wendy Sartory Link may be scrambling to find enough workers, Delray Beach polling places will open today as the city concludes its election.

Campaigning remained heated over the weekend. City Commission Seat 2 incumbent emailed about challenger Juli Casale to say, “Shame on you, Juli.” Bathurst said he objected to Casale’s claim that a second term for Bathurst would mean higher costs for police and fire pensions. Both first responder unions have endorsed Bathurst.

In addition, Bathurst said, Casale claimed that Bathurst wanted to allow eight-story buildings in Delray Beach, where the height limit is four stories. Bathurst responded, correctly, that a property owner is suing Delray Beach because the commission limited buildings on a section of East Atlantic Avenue to three stories.

Before the coronavirus changed everything, we had expected an unusually high turnout because the election aligns with the statewide presidential primary. Now, though, fewer people might want to vote and lines might be longer because of pollworker shortages. That would benefit candidates who got their people to vote early.

Delray PACs

A liberal political action committee is backing two candidates in Delray Beach.

New Florida Majority, according to its website, “works daily to create an inclusive multiracial, multilingual and multicultural movement that seeks to unite people across economic, racial, religious and gender lines through a shared love of a democracy that serves all.” The group emphasizes registration of minority voters and support for candidates of color. It has been associated strictly with Democratic candidates.

In Delray Beach, the group has spent about $20,000 to support Jennifer Jones in the Seat 2 race against Bathurst and Angela Burns against incumbent Shirley Johnson in Seat 4. Jones is Haitian-American and Burns is African-American. New Florida Majority didn’t register with the city as a PAC until Feb. 15. Its form lists expenditures but not the source of its 

Hard Knocks Strategies, the consultant on which New Florida Majority spent most of its money, has links to the Service Employees International Union. The union has links to Chuck Ridley, a longtime Delray Beach activist especially on redevelopment of West Atlantic Avenue.

Ridley and others opposed the 2018 city commission takeover of the community redevelopment agency, which Bathurst and Johnson supported. Perhaps the critics hope that Jones and Burns would reverse the decision.

This late support for Jones might divide the anti-Bathurst vote and hurt Casale, whom Mayor Shelly Petrolia supports. In Seat 4, it could divide the minority vote—Johnson also is African-American—and help the third candidate, Chris Davey. He’s also a Petrolia ally.

And you are covered

For those worried about voting, Link said all polling places will have hand sanitizers and workers will wear gloves. The workers will be cleaning voting machines based on CDC protocols.

Brightline in the news

The business magazine/website Fast Company has named Brightline one of the world’s most innovative companies for 2020.

Brightline, which will be rebranded as Virgin Trains USA, operates passenger rail service between West Palm Beach and Miami, with expansion coming to Orlando in 2022. The company plans to add a Boca Raton station at the end of this year or early in 2021.

Fast Company ranked Brightline second to Tesla among transportation companies. The magazine recognized the company for “revamping train travel in Florida and breaking ground on a line from Los Angeles to Las Vegas.”