SEBRING —County commissioners have agreed by consensus not to make any more restrictions on local business or movement than have been imposed at the state level.
The only exception is that all county parks are now closed. Boat ramps will remain open.
Closed parks include the following:
- The Preserve of Sun ’N Lake, at Sun ’N Lake Boulevard and Balboa Avenue, Sebring.
- H.L. Bishop Park, 10 Lake June Clubhouse Road, Lake Placid (boat ramp still open).
- Highlands County Multi-Sports Complex, 216 Sheriff’s Tower Road, Sebring.
- M.L.K. Park, 141 Josephine Ave., Lake Placid.
- Lake Glenada, 2475 U.S. 27, Avon Park (boat ramp still open).
- Lake Francis park, 300 Cloverleaf Road, Lake Placid (boat ramp still open).
- Carver Park-Highway Park, 141 Josephine Ave., Lake Placid.
- Lake Henry fishing pier, 46 Lake Henry Drive, Lake Placid.
- Windy Point Park, 65 Windy Point Road, Lake Placid (boat ramp still open).
- Istokpoga-Cowhouse park, 2011 Lake Blvd., Lorida (boat ramp still open).
- Lorida Ballfields, 1909 Blessings Ave., Lorida.
- Josephine 3, 2430 Oak Beach Road, Sebring (boat ramp still open).
- Red Beach Lake park, 6701 Commerce Drive, Sebring (boat ramp still open).
- DeSoto City Park and Ballpark, 6300 County Road 17, Sebring.
- Lake Istokpoga Park, 720 Istokpoga Park Access Road, Sebring (boat ramp still open).
- Lincoln Heights Park and Ballpark, 4821 Muriel St., Sebring.
Commissioner Don Elwell, in light of the fact that Gov. Ron DeSantis has not considered a statewide “shutdown” for novel coronavirus, asked commissioners if they wanted to entertain more restrictive measures on what “essential” businesses should be open right now to “rip the Band-Aid off a little bit and try to flatten the curve here, locally.
“That way we don’t crush our local economy by stretching this out for three, four, five, six, eight weeks or longer, depending on how long the effects are of this,” Elwell said. “I just want to take the temperature here, pardon the expression, of the group to find out what you all think, because I’m a little frustrated with the fact that we have kind of indecisive action happening above us.”
Commission Chair Ron Handley said he preferred to follow the state’s lead.
“I understand where you’re coming from, to get ahead of the curve, but I — I personally think we don’t need to take that drastic of an action just yet, personally,” Handley said.
Commissioners Jim Brooks, Greg Harris and Arlene Tuck agreed with Handley.
“I personally think we need to start thinking about what we can do to help the people once we get out of this,” Tuck said. “We’re going to lose a lot of businesses if we can’t come up with some kind of plan to maybe assist them in some way.”
She said Lake Placid is “just dead,” especially restaurants.
Handley said restaurants can still sell carry-out or delivery.
When asked, Sheriff Paul Blackman told commissioners he reviewed calls for service after dark, to see if a curfew was in order.
“It’s the opposite,” Blackman said. “Folks seem to be doing really, really good. When the sun goes down, it gets dark, our calls for service are really falling through the bottom.”
He said people gathering on lakes, including one at H.L. Bishop Park on Lake June, “policed themselves,” especially after he called in officers from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to talk with them.
County Administrator Randy Vosburg said closing public parks may discourage people from congregating, which isn’t against the law, but could spread the virus. He also said many parks have playground equipment that the county doesn’t sanitize daily.
Brooks said some like The Preserves and Lake Olivia are used mostly for passive open space activities, not events.
Handley suggested deputies could patrol parks for crowds, and Blackman said deputies could do that.
More than 450 people watched Tuesday’s meeting via internet livestream, typing in more than 800 comments, including that boats can become incubators and only a complete shutdown of parks and ramps would slow the spread of the virus.
County commissioners spoke with Patrick Hickey, environmental health director and epidemiologist for the Florida Department of Health for Highlands and DeSoto Counties. Hickey said he thought keeping boat ramps open would be fine.
“These same people are going to the grocery stores and the parking lots full,” Brooks said, noting that he’d rather be in a park.
Grocery stores are open, but people concerned about social distancing can use curbside pickup or hired shoppers to deliver groceries to them.
Some local business owners, commenting on the livestream, said small businesses have suffered already and would suffer extremely from a lockdown.
Beverly Marshall, who attended in person, said a lot of businesses have many employees in direct contact with people every day who could have the virus for nine days before showing symptoms.
“You are creating a mass undertow, then, of contacts you will not be able to follow — a mass undertow of people who are going to infect other people, and you are not going to be able to track it,” Marshall said.
Elwell asked Highlands County Emergency Manager LaTosha Reiss about the impression she’s gotten from statewide conference calls.
“Right now, the feeling that we’re seeing is that the governor is a little bit reluctant to do that, because, I think, ultimately he and everyone else want people to follow the orders that are already out,” Reiss said. “And if those are followed, we won’t have to take that next step.
“And I think that’s what everybody’s hoping for, but we’re just not seeing them take the action we’re asking them to,” Reiss added.
Elwell said it would make sense to have a severe isolation for two weeks to “reset” the situation, but Reiss said it’s not that simple.
Reiss said Alachua County has issued a stay-at-home order, but she also cautioned that scientific models of complete shutdowns suggest that doesn’t work for the long term.
“It will control it in a group, and then as soon as you’re exposed to an exterior again, it opens up that process again,” Reiss said.
Nothing’s going to get rid of the virus for good, she said.