The Royal Palm Beach Village Council faced a tough leadership question at a special emergency meeting held at 2 p.m. on Thursday, March 12 to discuss the village’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The sole item on the agenda was whether or not to postpone a major seafood festival scheduled to begin in less than 48 hours. Workers were already setting up staging for the Royal Palm Beach Seafood Festival at the time of the meeting. The village had been promoting the event, and scores of vendors and perhaps thousands of residents and visitors were scheduled to gather and mingle at Royal Palm Beach Commons Park. The outside vendor running the event wanted to proceed as planned.
Since the council had approved the festival, the only legal way to postpone it was for the council to vote to postpone it. At the time of the meeting, the federal government had not yet issued clear guidelines with bans on public gatherings that became in effect only days later. Mixed signals were still coming from Washington, D.C., regarding the scope of the threat.
In his opening remarks, Village Manager Ray Liggins, a professional engineer by training, briefed the council on his alarming findings regarding the spread of the disease in other countries and said that this type of rapid distribution is projected for the United States. He went on to describe the ways the disease is spread and explained to the council the now familiar desire to “flatten the curve” so large numbers of residents don’t all get sick at the same time and flood local hospitals.
Clearly alarmed at the threat to public health, Liggins asked the council to take action.
“At this point, the Centers for Disease Control has issued a suggestion that large events, exactly like ours, be postponed,” he said.
Mayor Fred Pinto said that he hoped that clear direction would be issued soon by the governor’s office.
“Since we scheduled this special meeting, Gov. Ron DeSantis has issued a press release that I would like to read,” Pinto said.
He then quoted the governor as saying, “I am recommending municipalities and private organizations strongly consider limiting or postponing mass gatherings.”
Councilman Jeff Hmara asked whether the village had received any guidelines from the Palm Beach County Health Department. Liggins replied in the negative. A discussion then took place regarding which other regional events, by that time, had been canceled or greenlighted to proceed.
Absent definitive guidelines, the council was faced with the leadership dilemma whether to postpone the event. On one hand, workers were already setting up booths and stages, and everyone knew postponement would hurt the various vendors and businesses involved. On the other hand, images from China and Italy, where the pandemic is more advanced, made clear that no one wanted to see this type of human disaster happen at local hospitals.
“We have to consider that this event, even if we allow it to go on, it might be a business failure anyway for the vendors,” Vice Mayor Jan Rodusky said. “Will anyone show up?”
Councilwoman Selena Samios, who attended the meeting by telephone, felt that members of the public should decide for themselves. “I think whether the public attends the seafood festival or not ought to be up to the individual,” she said.
The meeting ended with a vote of 4-1 to postpone the festival, with Samios dissenting.
Within days after that decision, new state and federal guidelines were issued, which prohibit mass gatherings like the seafood festival because of their threat to public health.
Royal Palm Beach’s response to COVID-19 remains proactive and fluid. The village has posted a special “Coronavirus Update” page at www.royalpalmbeach.com.
The page contains handy links to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention web site and Palm Beach County’s page about “What you need to know about COVID-19.”
At press time, village positions posted on the web site are as follows:
• All organized indoor activities at village facilities are canceled.
• All upcoming 5K events are canceled.
• The Royal Palm Beach Green Market has been suspended.
• Pavilion rentals and outdoor activities will continue for now.
• Village essential services and functions will continue without interruption at their normal scheduled time.
The village is encouraging residents, permit-seekers and others to use the village web site and telephone instead of visiting village hall. The “Coronavirus Update” page has handy links how to do this.
“The decisions we make each day is our attempt to minimize a rapid escalation of the outbreak through the community,” Liggins told the Town-Crier. “We are continuing to monitor the CDC and will modify our requirements as the situation unfolds.”