Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
July 9, 2020
Fernandina Beach City Commissioners (FBCC) devoted significant time during their July 7, 2020 Regular Meeting to discussing their concerns about the safety and health of local citizens as the number of Coronavirus cases continues to rise in the city and areas of the county included in the 32034 ZIP Code.
Vice Mayor Len Kreger placed discussion of the pandemic on the agenda, stating that the outbreak is not over yet. He recapped some of the actions the FBCC has taken since March, commending his fellow commissioners for their determination to help citizens and businesses. He also noted that Nassau County has cooperated in taking many similar actions. Kreger expressed appreciation to businesses like Publix that are encouraging social distancing and the wearing of face coverings.
Kreger said that he wanted to discuss concerns other than face masks. He noted that various cities around the state are now reversing reopening plans because of increases in the number of Covid cases. He said that he was not suggesting that Fernandina Beach do the same at this time, but wondered what measures the City should be prepared to take if local numbers of infected patients continues their sharp rise. He also asked how the City would determine the point at which more actions need to be taken to protect citizens.
Kreger went on to report that the County’s unemployment rate is 12.9 percent; tourism marketing is on hold; and the County has not yet determined the City’s share of the CARES funding.
Commissioner Mike Lednovich reported half of the Covid cases reported by Nassau County occurred over the past week. He said that the majority of the people he has seen who are not wearing masks are visitors, not residents. “Nine out of the ten people I see are wearing masks,” he said. “But that tenth person either doesn’t know about the mask requirement, or isn’t going to wear one.”
City Manager Dale Martin reported that the City has designed a poster to be placed in windows of businesses to announce the mandatory face covering policy. The City is working with the Chamber of Commerce so that similar signs may be placed in windows of County businesses. Thoose signs should begin appearing later in the week.
Commissioner Phil Chapman cited the march last week in support of the police. He said that there were very few masks to be seen on participants and no social distancing. “People don’t get it,” he said. “The numbers that I am hearing on the news just blow my mind.” Chapman went on to compare today’s situation with days during World War II when air raid wardens would knock on doors of people who had not drawn their black out curtains. “No Americans were standing there claiming it was their right to keep their blinds up,” he said. “Gentlemen, we are at war, and we are having casualties. … I don’t know what it takes for people to take this pandemic seriously.”
Chapman expressed discomfort at having business owners responsible for enforcing rules on masks and social distancing in their establishments. “What steps is the City prepared to take to enforce the rules that we have set?”
Lednovich agreed with Chapman, saying that he would like to see City Code Enforcement work at night and visit restaurants to check on compliance.
With respect to taking action in the future, Kreger asked, “What is it we want to look at? What criteria do we need for further action? I’m not a big fan of waiting for the State or the County to do something. When do the numbers tell us we’ve got to do something further? I don’t have the answer but that’s what it is all about in moving forward. What do we look at and when do we look at it? Beaches are another concern. I’m not advocating that we do anything right now, but I want to be prepared to lead from the front.”
Chapman added that the Nassau County numbers don’t tell the entire story, because many of the visitors who contract the virus are recorded in their home states, not here.
Lednovich said that over the past week the daily number of recorded cases has gone from 1.4 to 9.4 to 20. He suggested that if the number of 20 cases per day continues, the FBCC should take additional action. “What we are doing isn’t working.”
Commissioner Chip Ross asked what actions Lednovich would propose to take. Mayor Miller suggested that the FBCC agree to a phased plan now that can be implemented immediately without needing to thrash out details under more pressure.
Lednovich agreed, suggesting measures such as going back to phase 1 or limiting restaurant capacity to 25 percent, close gyms, etc.
Kreger suggested that the FBCC needed to hold a workshop quickly to devise a plan. Chapman agreed. “Public health trumps economics right now in my mind,” Kreger said.
Commissioner Ross said, “I’m still not clear what you want to accomplish. The most effective means for stopping this pandemic is through contract tracing, which is done by the Health Department. So what is it that we plan to accomplish?”
Kreger said that the purpose is to determine at what point more action needs to be taken. He asked that the Health Department be included in the workshop.
City Attorney Tammi Bach said that if the FBCC wants to include an expert, commissioners must be very clear about their expectations from that person. “They are not going to tell you what they think,” she said. “They will respond to specific requests for information. They will not get involved in the political process.”
Kreger suggested checking with Tampa and Miami Dade to see what formula they used to retrench their reopening efforts. Bach suggested that Fernandina Beach is a very different community and that commissioners need to be prepared for push back if they decide to take stronger action in the interest of public safety.
Mayor Miller urged that the City coordinate with the County on any proposed action, because stricter enforcement on the City’s side will force more people into County businesses, thereby moving but not solving the problem.
Commissioner Ross, who works as an ER doctor at Baptist Nassau, reported that ER visits have increased in the last two weeks. “The primary way of not getting sick for health providers is wearing a mask,” he said. “Except to eat or drink, I did not take off my mask for my entire 10-hour shift.”
“If we don’t flatten the curve, it is true that our health care facilities will be overwhelmed. There seems to be a thought out there that you can get sick and increase what they call herd immunity. Herd immunity means that if a certain percent of the population develop antibodies against the disease, the disease won’t get transmitted. But depending on which expert you consult herd immunity, depending on the disease, ranges from 50 – 90 percent of the population. That means that 50-90 percent of the population would have been infected with the disease to confer immunity to our community. That’s a lot of people being sick.
“We don’t want this disease. People can die from this disease. Many young people are getting sick. It seems to be a disease that affects blood vessels. Even if you don’t get sick, you won’t be able to work for 2 weeks as you sit in quarantine. The most important reason to flatten this curve is that you don’t want to pass it on to your family, your children and your friends.
“So what do you want to do to not get sick? Somehow you have got to get people to buy into the fact that they shouldn’t be going to crowded places. We’ve got to get people to understand that they must stay 6 feet apart. And you need to get people to wear masks — and that’s mostly in indoor spaces.
“You say we need to enforce this. Well, the City has two Code Enforcement people. Do you want to send people to jail for violations? We need to get people to work together to do this. This epidemic will pass, but it is very likely that we will be having meetings like this a year from now. Everybody thinks the virus is just going to go away magically, but it is not.”
Ross talked about the challenges in developing, testing and producing a vaccine, as well as getting people vaccinated. He expressed skepticism about the value of a workshop.
“We flattened the curve before and we can do it again, but it has to be by getting people working together — more carrot than stick. We don’t have enough police or code enforcement officers to do it any other way.”
Chapman appeared to disagree, using drunk driving as an analogy. “This is killing people,” he said. “Enforce the rules or get rid of them. I don’t mind the stick over the carrot.”
The FBCC is moving forward to hold a workshop, probably on July 15 at the City Golf Course Club House, following mediation over the OHPA dispute. More information will be forthcoming.