BELLEAIR — If you feel like 2022 is more like 2020, too, you’re not alone.
With positive COVID cases, fueled by the highly contagious omicron variant, rapidly rising to early pandemic levels, Pinellas County officials are scrambling to keep pace with changing CDC guidelines while attempting to maintain safe and healthy work environments for employees and staff.
In Belleair, the Town Commission recently discussed revising its employee COVID policy after the CDC’s recent recommendation to reduce the quarantine period for people who test positive from 10 days to five, a move that presents significant benefits as well as challenges, according to Town Manager J.P. Murphy.
“I, personally, have some discomfort with going from 10 to five days, just from personal observation,” Murphy said during the Jan. 4 commission meeting, adding the city must “balance the needs of our limited staff members. So, five days does present us with a unique opportunity to get folks back into the workforce quicker.”
Noting they “want to be cautious” and “have some testing done” before allowing once-COVID positive employee to return to work, Murphy asked the commission “to weigh the relative risk that comes along with that. Because while five days might be a reduced risk of transmission, it’s not non-zero risk of transmission.”
He also asked the commission to allow him to be “fluid” with some of the return-to-work protocols.
“I think we have to take a tiered approach to some of these things because we have unique levels in our workforce,” Murphy said, citing the police department as one area where flexibility could be needed.
When Mayor Mike Wilkinson asked for commission comments, Deputy Mayor Tom Kurey, speaking via Zoom, said he agreed, stating, “It does seem like we may need to have a little bit of fluidity here as J.P. said, but I’m generally supportive of what he said and believe we should follow the CDC guidelines.”
During the public comments, former commissioner Karla Rettstatt noted the combination of people with no symptoms testing positive and others sick with the flu, but not COVID, being allowed to work presents a difficult situation for employers, employees, and their families.
“My company had an employee who tested negative three times before he got a positive test and now we have the flu going around, so it’s a touchy one to figure out because someone can actually test negative before they test positive and they could be at work,” Rettstatt said. “So, my question is if somebody has a lot of the same symptoms, are you sending them home? Are they on their own leave? Are we paying for that? That’s all the things that are coming out of all this. Because the flu looks very much like COVID.”
Murphy said their policy states “if you have any types of symptoms, our policy requires that you report it, and you stay home, just in case. After the fourth day we require you to get a test to know what your status is … and once they test positive that triggers our COVID policy. If they’re otherwise just sick, and they test negative, then once their symptoms resolve they could come back to work if they test negative.”
“It’s a moving target, isn’t it?” Mayor Wilkinson asked.
“It really is,” Rettstatt replied.
With that, the board voted 4-0 in favor of Commissioner Tom Shelly’s motion to allow Murphy to adjust the town’s COVID policy according to CDC guidelines. Commissioner Coleen Chaney was absent.
Earlier, Rettstatt, who serves as the president of the Belleair Community Foundation, announced they were canceling their chili cookoff scheduled for Feb. 6 due to COVID-19 concerns, and Murphy said the town’s Family Movie Night scheduled for Jan. 14 at the Dimmitt Recreation Center was canceled, with the fate of future editions to be determined.
Additionally, the town’s website noted as of Friday, Jan. 7, that the Community Center would be closed from Jan. 10-14 “due to recent positive cases of COVID-19 among our staff.”
When asked for comment on the recent wave of restrictions and cancellations, Mayor Wilkinson said via email on Monday, Jan. 10, “We are managing the best we can and I am told that this should be easing sooner rather than later,” adding he agreed with Murphy’s “tweaks” to the town’s COVID policy.