Vaccine Mandates Up In the Air, Delray Contemplates Bond Issue & More

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Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Several Palm Beach County officials, among them Mayor Dave Kerner, last week called on employers to mandate COVID-19 vaccinations. They noted how the virus surge has strained area hospitals. Though Delray Beach has done so, Boca Raton continues to hold off.

In separate conversations, council members Andrea O’Rourke and Andy Thomson called a vaccine requirement “complicated.” Thomson said, “I like the idea.” He said, “The merits of the vaccine are obvious.”

On his first day last month, Delray Beach City Manager Terrence Moore required all non-union employees to be vaccinated by Aug. 30 or provide a “legally covered” reason to be exempt. Unvaccinated employees would have to undergo weekly COVID-19 testing.

Moore subsequently announced that the firefighters union had agreed to the protocols. A city spokeswoman did not respond to my question about where things stand with the police union.

Last month, however, a department spokesman said 68 sworn officers and 31 civilian employees had been vaccinated. The spokesman added that about 50 of the department’s roughly 250 employees have contracted COVID-19.

“I would like to see how Delray pulls it off,” O’Rourke said. Thomson agreed. O’Rourke said, “It might be worth looking at an incentive program.”

A month ago, Mayor Scott Singer was noncommittal. He noted that since the pandemic began in March 2020 Boca Raton “has taken many proactive steps and continues to assess options daily in this dynamic environment… We have put in many protocols for employees since the pandemic began and continue to share information with residents and businesses and encourage people to follow health experts’ guidance.”

Though Moore made the decision, he consulted all five commissioners in advance. You can tell from their equivocation, however, that Boca Raton council members don’t intend to push City Manager Leif Ahnell on mandatory vaccinations—at least not yet.

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Ahnell’s hesitation is ironic, given his decisions last year. Boca Raton closed non-essential businesses on March 24 and issued a stay-at-home order two days later. City officials prided themselves on acting quickly after cases mounted, especially in Broward County.

Even now, Boca Raton does not require visitors to city facilities to wear masks. City employees must wear them in most indoor settings.

The obvious fear is that a requirement will cause some employees to quit. But Boca Raton Regional Hospital has issued a requirement. So has another of the city’s large employers, CP Group.

“It’s the patriotic thing to do,” said Managing Partner Angelo Bianco. “We want to create a healthy work environment and keep our buildings safe.” Bianco said roughly 40,000 people per day work in offices that are part of CP Group’s portfolio.

The company has about 200 employees. Bianco said four have resigned rather than get a vaccine. Another 15 have signed pledges to get the shots. The company will require proof of a vaccination.

Bianco raised another aspect of this issue. Some employers may start by applying the requirement only to new hires. So workers who refuse a vaccine may face the requirement at a prospective employer.

Though the Legislature has prohibited businesses from denying service to unvaccinated people, the state has issued no such ban on employers. That likely won’t change. Disney World last month reached a deal with its unions to have all employees vaccinated. Even Gov. DeSantis, who has banned local governments from enacting COVID-19 mitigation policies, won’t want to annoy Disney.

Even when this latest, and worst, surge begins to recede in South Florida, I wouldn’t expect the debate over employer requirements to end.

The Food and Drug Administration has given full approval to the Pfizer vaccine and soon will do the same for Moderna’s. The excuse that the FDA hasn’t granted full approval no longer will be valid. We have seen throughout the pandemic that public health is economic health.

COVID-19 relief funds in Boca

I have written that Delray Beach intends to use most of its money from this year’s COVID-19 relief bill to balance next year’s budget. Boca Raton’s plans for its money are less clear.

The city will get $12.2 million—half this year and half next year. A spokeswoman said the city plans to put $7.2 million into the general fund and $5 million into the capital improvement program. She added, though, that no money from the American Rescue Plan has been allocated for the budget year that begins Oct. 1.

So who will decide what happens to the money? The spokeswoman “assumes” that Ahnell will discuss it during budget hearings. The first is next Monday at 6 p.m.

New Delray bond program?

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Speaking of money, Delray Beach likely will ask property owners for some very soon.

During preliminary budget discussions, city commissioners expressed strong interest in a new general obligation bond, which would be financed with property tax revenue. The city’s current bond programs soon will expire, after which the commission could ask voters to approve a new one.

Based on those discussions, two projects could be a new city hall and police station. Some commissioners also want lots of new spending on parks. When commissioners picked Moore, some noted that he had overseen similar bond programs in other cities.

Middens found at Ocean Strand

The Ocean Strand property in Boca Raton may go on the National Register of Historic Places.

Last spring, the Archaeological and Historical Conservancy took 67 shovel samples through the property south of Gumbo Limbo Nature Center. The assessment was a city requirement as part of the Greater Boca Raton Beach and Park’s District’s plan to create a pedestrian park. The 16-acre site, most of which is west of A1A, is vacant.

The samples found evidence of three middens—disposal sites—dating to between 600 A.D. and 1400 A.D. during what historians call the Belle Glade period in this part of Florida, known as the East Okeechobee Cultural Area. Notably, the sites contain prehistoric ceramics. No human remains have been found. That would trigger another level of review.

In a May 14 letter to beach and park district board members, Executive Director Briann Harms said the project can proceed but must be scaled back. According to the conservancy, the work must not have “direct impacts” on the sites. Vegetation removal must be done by hand and overseen by a representative of the conservancy. Some invasive plants will have to stay.

Also, Harms said, the district moved the ADA-accessible path closer to A1A to keep it away from the middens. The changes will reduce the cost of the project because the contractor will do less work.

Though the district could conduct further archaeological studies, Harms did not recommend them “for the current purposes of a pedestrian-accessible park.” The city must approve the revised plan.

Last year, Compson Associates approached the district with a proposal to buy Ocean Strand for a luxury hotel and marina along the Intracoastal Waterway. There was no interest, and the district can’t sell land anyway. Compson may have gotten lucky. Ocean Strand might be vacant on the surface, but not once you start digging.

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Randy Schultz, a native of Hartford, Connecticut, has been a South Florida journalist since 1974. He worked for The Miami Herald until 1976 and for The Palm Beach Post from 1976 until 2014, where he served as managing editor and editorial page editor. Since 2014, he has written a politics blog, commentaries and other articles for Boca magazine. His writing has earned first-place awards from the Florida Magazine Association and the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors. Randy has lived in Boca Raton with his wife, Shelley Huff-Schultz, since 1985. His son, daughter-in-law and their three children also live in Boca Raton.