Gov. Ron DeSantis issued an executive order on Monday, May 3 ending the ability of local governments to issue directives related to COVID-19. This blanket order, Executive Order 21-102, superseded the Palm Beach County Commission’s mandate requiring the use of masks in public places.
During the commissioners’ meeting on Tuesday, May 4, County Administrator Verdenia Baker addressed the order.
“We are going to follow the governor’s order and CDC guidelines,” Baker said, adding that she has consulted with her staff on the matter. “It is my intent to continue the use of masks by employees and patrons doing business inside county buildings. We are short staffed to start with, hurricane season is soon upon us, and I need to protect our most valuable asset — and that is our employees and the public.”
Baker then explained both the offices of the Palm Beach County Property Appraiser and Palm Beach County Tax Collector also want to keep the use of masks within their offices. The Palm Beach County Clerk & Comptroller’s Office plans to work with whatever decision the county comes up with, she said. “The declaration of the state of emergency remains in effect,” Baker noted.
Without comments, the board was in full support of keeping masks a requirement to do business in Palm Beach County buildings.
Florida Department of Health-Palm Beach County Director Dr. Alina Alonso followed Baker with a brief presentation updating the commissioners on COVID-19 locally.
“We can see that the number of cases has gone down, as well as have the deaths,” Alonso said.
She went on to explain that while most new cases were in the 15 to 44 age range, the new cases are now spreading across other ages. “The five- to 14-year-olds now have 10 percent of the new cases,” Alonso said. “We are concerned about that. It is very fortunate that Pfizer in the next week or so is going to release its vaccine for ages 12 to 15. The timing is very good, since we are seeing that number creeping up.”
The cases in the 65 and over group is staying low, at about 8 percent. “We have to attack in order to get those number of cases down and stop those long-term consequences,” she said.
Just under 53 percent of the county’s population over the age of 15 is now vaccinated, she estimated. Alonso said that this is nowhere near the percentages needed to achieve “herd immunity.” The Department of Health is now working to mobilize its vaccine supply and get doses out into the community directly, targeting underserved areas.
“The whole idea is that we want to get more people vaccinated. We are well over the goal the president made, but we have to do more, because it is not likely we are going to reach herd immunity,” Alonso said. “In 2009, when we had the H1N1, we didn’t reach herd immunity for two years. I hope I’m wrong, but that is what the experts are saying.”
Alonso continued to support the need for masks, particularly at indoor public spaces and when at events with large groups, such as sporting events.
Director of Emergency Management Mary Blakeney also provided the latest COVID-19 numbers after more than 400 days of EOC activation. She explained that the overall positivity rate continues to increase, now sitting at 16.5 percent.
“As we transition away from our government-led mass vaccination sites with the Health Care District, our current focus is to roll out our grassroots mobile vaccination strategy,” Blakeney said. “On a positive note, our 7- to 14-day positivity rates have decreased. Our contact tracers have connected with 90 percent of their clients within 48 hours.”
According to Blakeney, more than 654,000 people have been vaccinated in Palm Beach County.
After reports from county staff, Vice Mayor Robert Weinroth had specific feedback on recent events.
“With the mandate now being taken down by the governor, it doesn’t mean that people should feel that they can’t wear a mask, and that’s important,” he said, stressing that if someone is sick, they should continue to mask up. “Businesses are still entitled to have their own rules.”
While commissioners Gregg Weiss and Melissa McKinlay continued to ask for vaccine data based on zip codes, Alonso made it clear she requires permission before sharing data.
“Anything that comes out of my office has to go through the [state] communication department,” Alonso said.
However, she did agree to request permission to share the data on a more frequent basis.
“I would appreciate any information rather than no information,” McKinlay said. “It’s frustrating. I’d like to see if we are doing as good of a job as these numbers portray.”
McKinlay thanked Alonso and her team for coordinating the vaccination of farm workers before they move on to other parts of the country.
“Every area grower that wanted their workers vaccinated was able to make that happen,” McKinlay said.
McKinlay now wants to work on a system for when farm workers arrive for the next season.
McKinlay was also blunt regarding her feelings about the recent executive order.
“I have some frustration with the surprise announcement yesterday and the complete lack of coordination with local governments. We weren’t given any heads up. [The order] wasn’t available until sometime after 5 p.m.,” she said. “We should be partners, not adversaries. Perhaps our legislators and leaders in Tallahassee will try to work with us instead of against us. If we hadn’t put measures in place, those numbers would have been higher… I hope we don’t see a variant surge, as these decisions have been lifted.”