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Coronavirus ironically brings community together

STEVE REID
Editor & Publisher
sreid@lbknews.com

Rotarian Carol Erker delivers desserts to Longboat Key’s Police Department and Fire Rescue Department to accompany the meals purchased by the Rotary Club of Longboat Key from La Norma Ristorante & Pizzeria located in the Centre Shops.

Our landscape is altered.

Masks, sanitizer and the many modes of social distancing bring an aura of safety as well as a multitude of visceral reactions.

The national news shows some protesting and buckling and eager to reopen the economy and allow the virus to simply play out and establish what is sometimes referred to as “herd immunity.”

Others say the sheltering in place, social distancing and safety measures are working and are partly responsible to why the coronavirus pandemic has not stricken many regions of our country as was initially predicted.

These two tensions are playing out on Longboat Key and Sarasota as town and county officials continue to examine and slowly relax some social controls. Additionally, more restaurants are starting to open for takeout with the hope that the general order imposed by Governor Ron DeSantis is also relaxed and will allow restaurants to open with possible capacity restrictions and distancing.

Longboat Key News spoke with Town Manager Tom Harmer and Fire Chief Paul Dezzi to find out where the town stands relative to opening or easing restrictions, what help and assistance and good deeds have been offered by residents and area businesses and what have we learned if and when such a situation happens again?

Harmer said that many of the Governor’s directives are due to expire and over the next week he and every community will be watching for what happens next. Several of the state-ordered directives include the Safer at Home order, the directive for only “essential businesses” to remain open and the restriction on vacation rentals.

The above state restrictions are the core measures that are controlling both social movement and the marketplace. The town of Longboat Key has regulatory authority and has closed its public beach access points, but not its beaches. Longboat has also recently opened the Linley Street public boat ramp.

Sarasota and Manatee County this past week reopened their public beaches, but not their public parking lots.

In addition to the question of when non-essential businesses will be allowed to open as well as restaurant dining facilities, that remains in the purview of Governor DeSantis. Another sector of the economy is the health care industries and hospitals which have stopped all elective surgeries and procedures and in many hospitals around the state and nation have furloughed thousands of employees and are losing critical revenue.

 

Local helping hands

Chief Dezzi and Harmer both speak highly of a resident initiated task force named “Neighbors Helping Neighbors.” The group is run by volunteers and is helping Longboaters who are sheltering with everything from grocery and food delivery to technical help with internet and other issues. Four women formed the core of the organization. PJ Anderson helps organize assistance for the north end of the island; Nancy Rozance handles the central part of the key and former Commissioner Lynn Larson heads up the south Longboat Key initiative. These three are referred to as the District Captains. Fire Department employee Tina Adams coordinates with the three and essentially takes phone calls from residents and dispatches them.  Each of the three areas has additional volunteers in the condominium and residential communities up and down the key, forming a network of assistance.

“All three of these ladies are motivators, positive and wanting to help,” says Dezzi.

Dezzi added that the organization will continue and assist beyond the Covid-19 pandemic.

 

Masking the problem

Over the past few weeks, hundreds of masks – both surgical and Fire Department compliant – have been both hand made as well as purchased and donated to the town.

Larson is also helping in this regard. Larson has sewn cloth surgical masks with a mouth-covering pouch where an actual m-95 compliant filter can be inserted. Dezzi said the filter used is actually the same as the highest grade air-conditioning filter elements. Larson spoke with the firefighters, designed the mask and started sewing. Last Wednesday, the Longboat Key Republican Club donated 500 face masks to the Fire Department and two days later donated 200 face masks to the Longboat Key Police Department.

The Longboat Key Garden Club also created cloth masks and donated them for Town Hall employees.

 

Appreciation is served and deserved

Many Longboat Key organizations have eagerly provided lunch and dinner to show their appreciation to the town Emergency Personnel. The Rotary Club has provided several meals as well as the Sleepy Lagoon Homeowners Association and Longboat resident Mike Kieper has also provided dinner.

 

To the curb…

One game-changer for many Longboaters who are trying their best to avoid public exposure and risk of infection is the fact that Publix on Longboat Key started to offer curbside delivery. Three weeks ago, curbside grocery for Longboaters was on the top of the wish list for Manager Harmer. Harmer said that over the past two weeks it became a reality when the Longboat Publix store manager made a special request to the district and corporate offices and the case was made that Longboat’s population was uniquely vulnerable to the pandemic. Now, residents can go to Publix online, shop and pay online, and have their groceries bagged and dropped into their trunk.

 

Lessons along the way

“This is something that is new to us,” said Harmer.

Perhaps most significant is the sheer amount of communication and coordination that is now a daily activity between the town, City of Sarasota, Sarasota and Manatee Counties and the state. A simple lesson learned was Manatee County closed all of its boat ramps and the town left its open. The very next day, boats and trailers descended into the village. The same happened with beaches. Harmer said that it made clear the necessity of coordinating openings and closings. After the town closed its beach accesses, it left Quickpoint Park open, and suddenly Quickpoint became a gathering place. That happened at Bird Key Park as well. Both were soon closed.

As for equipment, the town did start to run low on the personal medical equipment because of the fact that the firefighters and emergency personnel have had to wear masks, gloves, gowns and booties to every call that could present a Covid patient.

Harmer said that the town commissioners as well as staff have grown used to communicating using the Zoom application for virtual meetings. The commission held its first Zoom meeting last month and Harmer says that newly-elected Mayor Ken Schneier did a fine job adjusting and running the meeting. He said that 40 people watched in addition to the commissioners, and now his staff is using the same platform to hold staff meetings and to communicate on projects.

Harmer said that many town projects continue unabated such as the undergrounding and the construction of the new fire stations.

 

Positive signs

Harmer said nobody on Longboat Key has tested positive in the last three weeks. He maintains that Longboat’s population is especially vulnerable and the town will act cautiously when the Governor eventually starts to reopen business and society.

Dezzi said that there was a spike of Covid-19 cases the week of March 21, but that has subsided. He said that the town has received calls from residents upset with property managers putting restrictions in place such as on using pools, clubhouses or even beach parking, but he adds that is because those destinations are gathering places and it is the right decision.

Dezzi was especially happy to report a bright piece of news. He said that an elderly Longboat Key resident who was in critical condition and on a ventilator recovered and was just recently released to go home.

“That was extremely uplifting for me,” said Dezzi.

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