Wednesday, December 1, 2021

New Surge In Virus Cases May Reignite Debate Over Masks in Schools

When it comes to the COVID-19 pandemic, the message from Boca Raton and Delray Beach officials continues to be cautious optimism. They regularly urge residents to get vaccinated and to not become complacent.

As we heard Tuesday, that’s the right message, and too few residents of Palm Beach County are heeding it.

During her presentation to the county commission, Health Director Alina Alonso noted the recent increase—the wrong way—in key metrics. The positivity test rate on June 8 was 3.2 percent, below the desired 5 percent. As of July 9, however, it had more than doubled to 6.9 percent.

In addition, the overall case rate doubled during that period. Though the case count is far lower than it was a year ago, during the second surge when the county began to reopen prematurely, it’s rising. In Florida, deaths and hospitalizations are rising.

Alonso presented charts showing that some numbers are high enough to signal a resurgence of the virus, which would be grounds for the commission to reimpose restrictions. Of course, that couldn’t happen. Gov. DeSantis has stripped cities and counties of that authority.

DeSantis also is releasing COVID-19 information weekly, not daily. Some boxes on Alonso’s charts simply read “Data no longer available.” Local officials are thus flying blind.

Cases are most prevalent among younger people, because their vaccination rates are lower. Just 33 percent of residents ages 20 to 24 are fully vaccinated. Among those 25 to 29, it’s 31 percent. Rates rise with age, but even for those between 30 and 34 it’s only 37 percent.

In this area, vaccination rates remain highest in West Boca and West Delray and lowest in Delray Beach’s minority neighborhoods. In most parts of the two cities, the rate is between 55 percent and 70 percent.

Boca Raton city council members end each meeting by asking residents to keep their guard up. There’s no reason to stop giving that advice.

Masks in school?

palm beach county mask

If those metrics keep worsening over the next two months, it will lead to the question that no Palm Beach County School Board member wants to revive: Should students have to wear masks?

At this point, masks are optional when schools open on Aug. 10. All students will return to classrooms. But while the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urges in-person learning, the agency’s guidance remains that people who aren’t vaccinated wear masks indoors.

Currently, only children 12 and over can get a COVID-19 vaccine. In Palm Beach County, 17 percent of those from 12 to 14 are fully vaccinated. For those between 15 and 19, the rate is 30 percent.

Masks became an emotional flashpoint last year. Anti-maskers slung vitriol at school board members. Revisiting the subject might be worse.

But if vaccination rates don’t get higher in key groups, it might be inevitable.

Superintendent resigns

A recommendation to change the mask policy would come from Superintendent Donald Fennoy–if it came by Oct. 11.

As Fennoy announced in a letter Tuesday, that’s when his resignation will become effective. The news surprised board members, but it didn’t surprise me very much.

Fennoy drew strong criticism last year for what some board members called his failure to prepare adequately for a full year of distance learning. He also bungled the case of the former Spanish River High School principal who, in emails to a parent, sounded like a Holocaust denier.

In October, there likely was majority sentiment among the seven board members to fire Fennoy, but they held off. None wanted to do a superintendent search at that time.

Conditions are better, but superintendents across the country are resigning or retiring at three times the usual number. Nationwide, the pandemic is the main reason. In Florida, another factor is the campaign by DeSantis against what he calls “indoctrination” of students.

There is no likely successor to Fennoy within the administration. The board probably will conduct a national search. Don’t be surprised, however, if former superintendent Art Johnson suggests himself. I’m told that he was doing so last fall.

BRRH snags another big gift

Boca Raton Regional Hospital has received a $3 million donation from the Grunin Foundation toward its capital campaign.

Jay Grunin and his late wife, Linda Grunin, practiced law in New Jersey and expanded their business to real estate investment. Their foundation previously has supported project in that state, such as the Grunin Center for the Arts in Toms River.

This is the foundation’s first major gift in this area. Six months ago, Jay Grunin bought a house in Boca Raton’s Royal Palm community. According to a news release, the foundation’s name will be on the conference and education center off the lobby in the new patient tower.      

Boca Regional now has raised $208 million toward its capital campaign goal of $250 million. A hospital spokesman said the makeover itself is well underway.

The new main parking garage, with almost 1,000 spaces, just opened. Across Meadows Road, a medical arts building with its own parking should be complete in late 2023. That summer, the new power plant will be done. The grand opening of what Boca Regional calls the “centerpiece,” the patient tower, is planned for 2025.

The American Rescue Plan in Delray and Boca

Delray Beach will get a bit less from the American Rescue Plan than anticipated.

The first number was $13.2 million. The revised number is $10.9 million. A city spokeswoman said, “The initial calculations were done by the Florida League of Cities and the National League of Cities. The updated amount was calculated by the Treasury, which oversees the distribution of the funds.” Boca Raton will get $12.2 million, up from the first estimate of $11 million.

Local governments are getting half the money this year. Palm Beach County has received $145 million of its $290 million. Elected officials now will decide what to do with the money, which must go toward pandemic relief.

Delray parking issues

Delray Beach will hold community meetings Monday on the never-ending issue of downtown parking.

Both sessions—from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. and from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.—will be at the Veterans Park Community Center. Though the city previously made new rules for individual parking, discussion now will expand to cover all vehicles, from delivery trucks to rideshares, valet parking and delivery services.

Randy Schultz
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.

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