Pinellas commissioners extend state of emergency, discuss reopening plans

Pinellas County Administrator Barry Burton goes over preliminary plans to reopen county operations during a May 14 commission meeting.

CLEARWATER — Pinellas County commissioners voted unanimously May 14 to extend the local state of emergency until May 22. They also discussed the county administrator’s plans for reopening of county operations.

Barry Burton, county administrator, told the commission that the item on the agenda was just the “beginning of a conversation,” and that he had no specific recommendations for reopening.

He said the Emergency Operation Center had been activated for two months and was starting to gear down while keeping the logistics, purchasing and distribution portion of its activities going.

The county is reducing the hours that the Citizen’s Information Center is open and the sheriff is deactivating his tip line. The CIC is open Monday-Friday from 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Call 727-464-4333.

He said 743 county employees had been working remotely. Those unable to work from home have been working in staggered shifts to create the ability for physical separation. The county has a one-person per vehicle policy in place.

Burton said the constitutional officers, including the tax collector, clerk of the court, property appraiser and supervisor of elections, have been using similar work methods, but everyone was now starting to look at what needs to happen to move to a phase 2 reopening, if the governor were to enact it.

Burton was to meet with the constitutional officers on May 20.

Many were speculating that Gov. Ron DeSantis would announce the beginning of a phase 2 on May 15 or he might relax some of the restrictions in phase 1.

Whenever that change comes, the biggest challenge for local governments is how to reopen to the public.

“At some point we have to have contact,” Burton said.

The question is how to reduce the risk.

Currently, many services that involve public contact are being done by phone or online. Drop boxes also are available. Remote services will continue as much as possible, he said.

He said so far only one county employee had tested positive for COVID-19 and another had a probable case. Both were self-isolated.

He contacted the county’s municipalities about their plans and provided an overview of their reopening timeline.

According to Burton, Clearwater, Dunedin, Madeira Beach and Treasure Island plan to begin reopening in May. Belleair, Belleair Bluffs, Gulfport, Indian Rocks Beach, Largo, Oldsmar, Safety Harbor and Tarpon Springs are targeting a June reopening. St. Petersburg is planning a July reopening and Kenneth City is looking at August.

Burton targeted June 1 as the date to begin transitioning toward reopening the county, but said it might not be June 1, but whenever the governor announced the start of the next phase. He said all the departments were making plans that include adhering to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines.

Plans include the use of face shields and guards; making hand sanitizer available; and the use of floor decals and signs to maintain social distancing. High-touch areas would be sanitized more frequently and personal protective equipment, including face masks and gloves, would be used by employees. The public also would be encouraged to wear face masks.

He said a deep cleaning of all county facilities would be completed before facilities were reopened.

Public meetings would continue to be held virtually as long as the governor’s order remains in place. However, Burton has begun planning for in-person meetings in the future. He said the fifth floor Assembly Room at the Clearwater Courthouse is not big enough to accommodate social distancing, so he is looking at alternative locations. He suggested the Magnolia Room at the Cooperative Extension in Largo.

He anticipates a large number of people will want to attend future public hearings. He also suggested that some meetings be limited to one topic only. He said cameras could be moved to the Magnolia Room for use as long as necessary.

Commissioners talked about the need to continue to put out a strong recommendation that people wear face masks in public places where social distancing is not possible.

Suzette Porter is TBN’s Pinellas County editor. She can be reached at sporter@tbnweekly.com.