CLEARWATER — The City Council may declare a state of emergency at its Wednesday, March 18, special meeting, which could give the city manager emergency powers to close the beaches and make other decisions to reduce the expected spread of COVID-19.
The proposition came at the March 16 City Council work session, as the council reviewed its efforts to contain the coronavirus.
After Jevon A. Graham, the Clearwater chief of Emergency Management, described anti-coronavirus efforts, including increasing hygiene and janitorial cleaning of buildings, work areas, and other locations; canceling of city senior citizen and recreation programs, Clearwater Mayor George N. Cretekos brought up the idea of giving City Manager Bill Horne emergency powers to decide possible beach curfews and other matters when the council is not in session. Both Fort Lauderdale and Miami Beach announced March 15 that they would close sections of their beaches and limit when its bars and restaurants can remain open every day.
“The biggest question out there is the beaches,” Graham told the council. “After what happened in Miami, that is the question.”
The Pinellas County government has not called for the closing of any Gulf beaches, preferring to leave that decision to each municipality, Graham said.
“When it comes to curfews on the beach, emergency powers, do we need to do something as a council?” Cretekos asked Graham.
Clearwater City Attorney Pam Akin said the City Council would have to vote on declaring a state of emergency, probably at the council’s Thursday regular meeting.
“The city manager, and Jevon, we would declare a state of emergency ratified by the council, it’s the power you’re delegating to the city manager to declare an emergency,” Akin said.
Horne and Graham, and other city officials have formed a team to keep up with coronavirus developments, Horne said. Key to that team is Graham, emergency management chief, Horne said.
“When these things occur, your staff is working every day, throughout the weekend,” Horne assured the council. “We’ll stay with this until it ends. I told Jevon he is almost joined at the hip with me, we are connected,” Horne said. The team also includes Clearwater Police Chief Dan Slaughter, Assistant City Manager Micah Maxwell, City Communications Director Joelle Castillo, and Akin.
As the fear of coronavirus continues to close schools, national sporting events (including spring training in Clearwater) and local arts and entertainment venues, states, cities, and towns have contracted their social distancing to keep up with changing events. In Clearwater, the new rules could rapidly include the closing of economic engines such beaches, stores, and restaurants and bars.
In spite of the worry, the emergency manager said coronavirus exposure has been light in Florida.
As of the morning of the March 16 work session, the Florida Department of Health reported 136 people in Florida had tested positive for the virus and the majority of those were connected to travel; there have been five deaths in the state, Graham said.
“There has been no community spread yet,” he said.
Nevertheless, Graham said “every single day this has been citywide effort, with every city department” involved in coronavirus prevention.
To protect city employees, the emergency manager said, employees follow hand-washing guidelines and other sanitation practices, practice social distancing, while building maintenance crews have increased the cleaning of buildings and high-traffic areas, and areas where there are large gatherings.
“We have increased screening processes at city sites, anyone with any symptoms are not coming in. All staff led programs including swim lessons are canceled. It is ever-changing, every day is something different. But we are prepared and are working with the county and working with almost every jurisdiction around us so all our messaging is the same.”
Council members seemed unwilling to make that leap so soon.
Council member David Allbritton urged caution before closing any city beaches.
“I hate to jump on something without all the facts,” he said. “The beaches are a big economic driver for us. Instead of jumping out there, see what happens in the next week or so. Following that, see what happens.”