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AP declares state of emergency

AVON PARK — At an emergency meeting Friday morning, the Avon Park City Council passed a resolution declaring a State of Emergency, which authorizes the city manager to take actions to protect the health, safety and welfare of the city’s citizens and utility system customers.

At the meeting there was a physical quorum of three with Mayor Garrett Anderson, Deputy Mayor Stanley Spurlock and Councilwoman Brenda Gray present. Councilman Jim Barnard participated by phone. Councilwoman Maria Sutherland was out of town.

After the unanimous approval of the resolution declaring a State of Emergency, City Manager Mark Schrader said the health and safety of the city’s citizens and employees is the top priority during this time.

Earlier in the week he checked with the utility billing department and the city will not cut off anyone’s water service at this time, he said. City workers are following the CDC’s recommendations on washing hands and avoid touching their face and cleaning and disinfecting frequently touched surfaces.

All the events at the Community Center have been canceled until the end of April, Schrader noted.

Fire Chief Andy Marcy his firefighters are doing a self assessment of their health before they come to work and are told to do so before they enter the Fire Station and doing it 12 hours later and when they leave.

If someone gets symptoms at work they won’t let the next employees in before a thorough cleaning, he said. They are trying to avoid a situation where 10 people are in quarantine.

“So far it is working well; we don’t have any concerns,” Marcy said.

With nothing time sensitive on the agendas, the City Council canceled the Community Redevelopment Agency and City Council meetings that were scheduled for Monday.

Governor Ron DeSantis issue an Executive Order suspending any Florida Statute that requires a quorum to be present in person or requires a local government body to meet at a specific public place. Also, local government bodies may utilize communications media technology, such as telephonic and video conferencing, as provided in Florida Statutes.

The Executive Order does not waive any other requirement under the Florida Constitution and “Florida’s Government in the Sunshine Laws.”

Coping with COVID-19: How the pandemic has changed daily lives in Heartland

SEBRING — Anyone who hasn’t already transitioned away from eating out will now have to do take-out, pickup or delivery.

On Friday, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed Executive Order 20-71, blocking restaurants statewide from serving food in their dining rooms. The order allows sales of food for carry-out and delivery, and even lifts a ban on sales and delivery of package alcohol, but prevents onsite dining.

In the order, DeSantis pointed to a need for “social distancing” to try to prevent the spread of the highly-contagious and sometimes deadly novel coronavirus.

Local restaurateurs said they can make the transition, but only by putting dining room servers on furlough.

“This is like a mess,” said Maria Tsakalos, owner of Olympic Restaurant in Avon Park. “I feel so bad for my employees because they are out of work.”

She said she would give them what help she could, as long as possible.

“We have to have faith that we are all going to be coming out of this,” Tsakalos said. “We will rebound.”

Dimitri Panos, owner of Dimitri’s in Sebring, said it would affect his business “tremendously, very tremendously,” but said it needs to be done.

“We have to have it done. Health comes first, then we worry about the bills,” Panos said.

Between three drivers, his son and himself, Panos can handle deliveries, but he can’t let any dining room servers make deliveries. By law, they have to be on his insurance, and they aren’t.

Nancy and Ron Zachary live in Avon Park, and, like many, they had to cancel their vacation plans. Plans that would have taken them to St. Pete Beach or possibly Orlando. Closures had them rethinking those plans.

Instead, the couple decided to take the funds they would have used for vacation and spend it locally. Nancy told the Highlands News-Sun on Friday morning, ahead of DeSantis’ mandate, that she and Ron are supporting the “mom and pops” for as long as they can.

“We have taken precautions and see the restaurants meeting (then) guidelines,” Nancy said. “We have seen a lot of sanitizing done. This is an abnormal normal. I really feel for the small business owners, perhaps because my father was one. The big box stores will be fine.”

By the afternoon, however, it became apparent the Zachary’s will have to order to-go or go through drive-ins to continue to support the people in their community.

Even before federal officials told people to avoid gatherings of 10 or more, local Floridians had already begun to amend their behavior to reduce risk of infection, by “cocooning” at home with family and handling errands and bills through online orders and deliveries.

Nicole Horton, sales representative of an in-home fitness program, said earlier this week that her family had already stopped eating out. They try to eat healthy and exercise, live-stream church and have avoided big box stores “like the plague.”

“We’re not going anywhere or doing [anything] excessive now,” Horton said, including vacations.

At home with a 10-month-old daughter, Horton has had her husband make grocery runs to Sebring, usually ordering via a mobile app for pick up at the store.

If she has to go inside a store, she carries hand sanitizer and her own pen, to sign receipts.

Victoria Leal of Avon Park, medical receptionist and single mother of a 6-year-old special needs son, has had to stay at home with him now that schools and daycare are no longer in session.

While missing out on her paycheck, she’s shopped for supplies with a shopping app and curbside pickup.

It helps to keep them out of the store, unless people have hoarded a desired item. Then they have to go inside to find a substitute, risking infection or, she said, her child getting run into by aggressive shoppers.

Her employer has told her not to worry about her job.

“But I do worry,” Leal said. “I worry a lot.”

VFW Post 4300 in Sebring has had to close their doors under the Executive Order put in place by DeSantis earlier this week.

“Being a full-service kitchen, in our post, we typically feed our veteran members for free,” said Robert Sisson, senior vice commander for VFW Post 4300. “However, this is not possible with our Post currently being closed.”

Despite current conditions, Sisson says that the Post is still committed to helping Highlands County veterans and their families.

During the current COVID-19 pandemic, the Post will continue to provide certain services that have always provided veterans: check-ins for homebound veterans, collecting donations of food and clothing for homeless and needy veterans, providing grocery runs for homebound veterans and those concerned with going out during such events and providing transportation to medical appointments, both local and to VA hospital locations for veterans.

Sisson said, “In this time of crisis we strive to help in any way possible.”

Pianist Jeff Klein continues to play familiar songs, like “Dream a little Dream of Me,” at the Hotel Jacaranda as he has been doing every winter season since 1995.

“I am still playing; I still got my job,” he said, but there have been fewer people coming out.

A lot of people are saying goodbye early, Klein said. In the past, most people stuck around until Easter.

After Mother’s Day, Klein and his wife, Cynthia, depart from Florida to perform during the summer tourist season in South Dakota.

“I am not sure what is going to happen this summer up in South Dakota because everybody is afraid there might not be a tourist season this year,” he said. “I talked to my boss who owns the 1880 Town and he is thinking of not opening the town this year.”

Some are concerned that the Sturgis, South Dakota motorcycle rally might not happen, which will disappoint a lot of people because a lot of money comes in with the bike rally.

Avon Park Church Service Center Executive Director Pastor Thomas Finneran said there were some volunteers who are concerned about the health situation believing they would be at very high risk. They asked to be excused from work.

“Otherwise most of our people are still coming back in and working hard and doing the work of the Lord,” he said.

Finneran said he is a little more cautious and more aware of shaking hands and bringing his hands near his face and washing his hands. He is making sure to get plenty of sanitizer, paper towels, tissues and soap to wipe things down at the Church Service Center.

“We are just not sure how long it is going to last, that is our big concern and I know it is the same concern that we are all having in the nation,” he said.

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'Lockdown' at local ALF a false alarm

SEBRING — Residents of Sunny Hills Assisted Living Center, out for a hospital appointment this week, found themselves staying a little longer at that hospital before being brought back.

Allegedly, several people at the facility seemed to have a low-grade fever that day. Administrator Meagan Toney said that fever was universal for everyone. Once they got another thermometer and double-checked, staff found everyone was normal.

Toney said the thermometer was one staff had to get from a local dollar-price discount store, because more reliable thermometers were not available from any other retailer: Everyone had bought them up in the novel coronavirus panic.

“The problem is a shortage of supplies,” Toney said, including such things as latex gloves, nose/mouth masks and surgical/isolation gowns.

Toney asked people not to keep buying up and hoarding medical supplies. It leaves none for medical personnel, making caregivers more vulnerable to infection and putting their patients at greater risk.

The Washington Post, reporting Thursday on the national situation, stated that hospital workers have overcome shortages by using bandannas, sports goggles and homemade face shields as protection against infection.

These include a Seattle-area hospital system that set up a makeshift assembly line of parts purchased from hardware and craft stores to make protective face shields, Boston nurses who gathered racquetball glasses to substitute for safety goggles and a New York City dialysis center using bandannas in place of masks, which the CDC recommended as “a last resort.”

Toney said it’s become frustrating locally, because even basics like alcohol fly off the shelves as soon as they’re stocked. The temporary situation of holding patients at the hospital until getting an “all clear” from a reliable thermometer just underscored the concern, she said.

As for rumors of people being sick with fever, spawned by the thermometer issue, Toney confirmed that she didn’t have anyone sick with flu-like symptoms.

“If we have anything going on, we report to the [Florida] Health Department,” Toney said. “We don’t have anybody ill here.”

To other rumors of a “lockdown,” she said every assisted living facility is under a “lockdown” order from the state not to allow outside visitors to patients until the coronavirus risk has passed.

Also, Toney said, Sunny Hills just had a visit Tuesday from the Agency for Healthcare Administration (ACHA) for its annual inspection and passed “deficiency free.”