By Dale Martin
March 27, 2020
As the concerns and responses to Covid-19 continue to grow, the City’s efforts are much in line with other communities throughout the State.
One of the first steps taken by communities is to declare a local state of emergency. The City, through the Mayor, declared the local state of emergency on March 19. While the local state of emergency is directly related to State statutes and additional authority granted therein, the additional emergency powers are rarely, if ever, utilized. Most of the enhanced authority is related to procurement and personnel: the need to quickly mobilize physical resources and people, which, in the past, was primarily needed for natural disasters and emergencies. The Covid-19 virus is a completely different emergency than previously experienced.
Another key aspect of the local state of emergency is that with that declaration, the time of eligibility for the City to seek funding or reimbursement from federal and state agencies formally begins. The City’s recent efforts with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the City Marina notwithstanding, reimbursement for other activities has been reasonably prompt. This allows the City to take measures to prepare for the disaster, beyond the scope of normal operations: overtime costs and supplies that would likely have not been incurred are eligible for reimbursement.
A disaster entails significant paperwork to document the activities of many City personnel (mainly hourly staff since salaried staff is not compensated for overtime). In some cases, the amount of internal effort is deemed to be cost prohibitive in light of the anticipated reimbursement. The City did not file any claims (on behalf of the City) following Hurricane Dorian because, unlike other recent storms, Dorian occurred during daylight working hours and damage was minimal.
Most of the actions being implemented are presented to local officials (and the general public) through Governor DeSantis’ series of Executive Orders associated with Covid-19: the restrictions on local businesses and the conduct of public meetings. During this unprecedented public health emergency, the federal and state governments have substantially more emergency authority and power than local governments.
City staff is making a concerted effort to continue operations as normally as possible. Some special actions, as with other cities in Florida (if not the nation), have been implemented through the local state of emergency. With many residents’ income potentially adversely affected, the City has waived late fees for utility payments and suspended water disconnections due to late fees.
City facilities have been closed to the general public, and many of the services provided can now be conducted remotely (but not robotically). Documents and applications are available and can be filed electronically. “Social distancing” and self-isolation make the public business of government challenging.
Water and sewer services continue uninterrupted. Trash collection also continues normally, but, like other businesses, is susceptible to interruptions or changes related to personnel. If collection workers are afflicted, it may become necessary to reduce such collection services as bulk and yard waste to ensure that adequate staff is available for solid household waste collection (the lack of which would add to the public health emergency).
The City is preparing for the conduct of remote City Commission meetings, the first of which is tentatively scheduled for Apr 7. The effort is being made to base the meeting from the City Commission Chambers and thereby enable residents to observe the meeting via television or computer. Public participation in the meeting, though, may be limited.
The most critical operations now are public safety efforts. The men and women of the Police and Fire Departments (and, although not City staff, other healthcare professionals) continue to respond to calls for service. Some new protocols have been implemented to protect these vulnerable responders as much as possible. In other countries with significant infections, the loss of healthcare professionals greatly exacerbates the spread and effect of the virus.
Until the emergency stabilizes, the community’s response can be enhanced with personal responsibility and compliance with emergency health guidelines: wash your hands frequently, stay at home (especially if 65 years old or older), and, if necessity requires you to go out, be aware of the presence of others and minimize your contact.
We are faced with uncertainty, and the situation will further develop over the course of the coming days, weeks, and months. Please help, however possible, others in need and stay healthy yourself.