LAKE PLACID — Before the invocation was given or the Pledge of Allegiance was said at Monday evening’s regular Town Council meeting, Mayor John Holbrook made a statement about the current COVID-19 situation and the public meeting.
“Given the increased amount of COVID in our community and town government, we are asking all to cooperate with an expedited council meeting,” Holbrook said. “We hope to accomplish the public’s business as quick as possible and to delay any business until next meeting which is not time sensitive.”
Holbrook also said he had two department heads who were unable to attend the meeting because they were under quarantine. He later added he was thankful the people who tested positive had fairly mild cases. There were two people in the office and two in the field who were quarantined, though he was pretty sure two were due back any day.
As the town’s meeting was wrapping up, Councilman Ray Royce asked his fellow council members and Holbrook to consider ways of keeping the town’s people as safe as possible considering the spike in coronavirus infections and deaths.
“I want to say, just for the record, I’m a little bit concerned,” he said. “Our policy in regards to COVID, is to follow the government’s and the county’s lead.”
He said he was concerned because Highlands County “has the highest, or nearly the highest” death rate of the 66 other counties in the state.
“Basically, about 5% of our population has now tested positive for COVID and roughly 4% of those people have passed away,” he said.
Royce cited Broward and Dade counties that are well under 2% as well as Hillsborough and neighboring Polk counties that are well under Highlands County’s death rate. Aside from other counties, Royce cited other states that are far below the county’s average such as California, which he said was at 1% and Texas at 1.5%.
“Even the State of New York, which Florida has now exceeded by more than half a million, is at 3.4%,” Royce said.
Royce pointed out the council has recognized the problem as evidenced by the social distancing and expediting meetings and stated most people there had family or friends pass away or become very sick from the virus.
Royce said he did not need to see any action by council on Monday night and he was willing to wait a few more weeks and still might find support but felt the council should think about whether they should show leadership and start talking about mask mandates in public buildings. He said it may be unpopular but some folks have asked the Highlands County Board of County Commission — both outgoing and the new members — to mandate masks in the county, which they were not inclined to do.
“Are we going to set a trigger where the Town of Lake Placid considers or imposes a mask to businesses that the public accesses?” Royce asked on Tuesday afternoon.
Royce wanted to be very clear that he was not talking about shutting down businesses or going back to lockdown, but to have a discussion on keeping the public safe. Royce said he has traveled to other counties that have been far more strict than Highlands and have fewer vulnerable elderly people.
Holbrook asked those with any suggestions to bring them forward. He said the LP Government Center had a fogger that was some sort of disinfectant, so he felt that building was fairly safe but the community needed to be safe as well.
Councilwoman Debra Worley said she would like to see the town government employees get vaccinated like the first responders and those in the nursing homes.
“I feel like our employees are on the front lines too,” Worley said. “They are out there in the public and trying to serve the public. I didn’t know if there was any way that we could request that we have the vaccine for the people of the government of Lake Placid because they are serving the public and they have to have contact with the public. So, it’s not like they’re retail or something. So, I don’t know if there is any way to request vaccines for our employees.”
Councilman Charlie Wilson III pointed out that the state has been handling the vaccines with 65 and older first in line behind the medical personnel.
On Tuesday morning, Holbrook said that they will probably discuss the matter further during the next meeting, however, if the COVID case numbers continue to get worse, he could call for a special meeting to address it.
“We want to come up with more and better ways to keep Lake Placid’s citizens and visitors safe.”
SEBRING — The Sebring Community Redevelopment Agency approved a $1,000 marketing and advertising grant for a farmers market that will start up this Friday and Saturday in downtown Sebring.
The newly formed Sebring Alliance is presenting the farmers market at the city-owned property on Lakeview Drive that was recently sodded. The location previously had a bank drive-through teller facility that was torn down in 2020.
Dan Andrews informed the CRA Board on Monday that the goal is to have the farmers market every Friday and Saturday through the end of April. The hours both days will be 8 a.m. to noon.
“We feel this is going to be a great stimulus for traffic downtown, especially on a recurring basis. That is why we are doing it,” he said.
To promote it, Andrews requested a reimbursable marketing grant in the amount of $1,000.
Andrews said the Sebring Alliance was Mayor John Shoop’s idea to bring together business owners to create an environment to stimulate the business economy downtown and help generate traffic.
“It’s a fledgling new group and our only emphasis right now is the Sebring downtown farmers market,” he said. It’s a Florida non-profit group.
CRA Chair David Leidel said there are some things the CRA can’t do so the Sebring Alliance is designed to work in conjunction with the CRA.
“This is an organization that can do more event-focused stuff in the downtown district,” Leidel said.
Andrews said the idea wasn’t to create one-off (one time) events or be an event marketing company.
“What we are trying to do is create sustainable and viable opportunities downtown that will be ongoing as with the farmers market,” he said. “I think there are plenty of other organizations who come to the community and put on single-day or weekend festivals or things like that we are looking to more sustainable, long-term type of projects.”
Currently, the farmers market has six vendors and there are a bunch that are waiting to see how it goes, Andrews said. Some have existing stands and are looking to also participate downtown, but they don’t want to abandon their existing location.
“I am confident that long term this is going to be significant,” he said. Initially there may be half-a-dozen vendors and then hopefully that number will grow during the season and for the next January kickoff there would hopefully be a waiting list for vendors.
The CRA Board unanimously approved the marketing grant for the farmers market.
Andrews said there is no charge for vendors and it will be a true farmers market with items limited to home grown or home sold and edible produce and other food items. So there will not be any crafts.
Vendors who want to apply to participate should phone 863-471-2453 and ask for Andrews.
After three straight days with lower numbers, Highlands County made a turn for the worst, with the release of Tuesday’s COVID-19 numbers by the Florida Department of Health. The county saw an increase of 75 cases, raising the overall total of cases to 5,632. Fifty-nine of those cases have been found in non-residents.
Testing was still relatively low, with 346 tests processed for the day, which resulted in a positivity rate for new cases of 22.25%, which is the worst the county has seen in the last 14 days.
There were an additional five deaths, which raises the death total to 225.
The median age for new cases was 53, which is just slightly higher than the overall median age of 51. Of the new cases, eight of them were found in children aged 14 and under.
Hospitalizations did take a major drop, with the Florida Agency for Health Care Administration reporting 53 hospitalized with a primary diagnosis of COVID on Tuesday, which is 10 fewer than Monday.
Not all the news on the hospitalization front was good, however, as ACHA was showing all 27 ICU beds in in Highlands County taken as of Tuesday afternoon, while eight out of 277 regular hospital beds were available.
Highlands County did give 129 vaccines on Monday, with seven receiving their first dose and the other 122 receiving the second shot in the series. The county has given vaccines to 1,999 people.
Statewide, there was also a bump after seeing lower numbers the previous two days. There were 14,896 new cases reported, which pushes Florida past the 1.5 million mark, with 1,503,482 cases. Residents account for 1,476,484 of the cases, with non-Florida residents making up the other 26,998 cases.
Testing made a slight uptick from the two previous days, with 137,749 tests processed and a positivity rate of 10.62%, which is comparable to rates seen the past four days.
There were an additional 161 deaths reported, with 156 resident deaths and five non-resident deaths. There have now been 23,227 resident deaths and 358 non-resident deaths for a total of 23,585.
Vaccines in the state picked up on Monday, with 36,010 people receiving their first shot and another 9,903 receiving the final shot in the series. The state has now vaccinated 648,353 people, with 51,234 people having received both shots.
The numbers were slightly better in the United States, as the COVID Tracking Project reported 193,857 new cases and an additional 1,739 deaths. There were 1,897,959 tests given, which is slightly higher than the seven-day average, while the number of cases was 53,000 fewer than seven-day averages. Deaths were well below the seven-day average of 3,210.
Hospitalizations remained high, with 129,748 currently hospitalized with COVID-19.
Deaths are likely to be higher on Tuesday, as the California Department of Public Health showed California’s numbers down a bit at 36,487 cases, but deaths were twice as high as Monday, with 548 new deaths reported.
Pennsylvania reported 227 deaths on Tuesday, while Ohio reported 7,981 new cases and 100 deaths.
According to the Johns Hopkins University Center for Systems Science and Engineering, the United States has now seen 22.7 million cases and 378,849 deaths.
Globally, there have been 91.3 million cases and 1.95 million deaths.
SEBRING — Highlands County officials have amended the instructions they gave people who get an appointment for COVID-19 vaccination each week.
Instructions were for people to reply back and confirm their appointment within 24 hours of getting an email or call from the county that they have a set appointment. They no longer have to do that.
The new rule, county officials said, is to reply or call back within 24 hours only if you can’t make the appointment on that day or time. You will not, however, be able to get a new slot that week.
All of the slots for that week are already taken, said Highlands County Public Information Officer Gloria Rybinski. Anyone who cannot make an appointment that week will get put at the head of the list for the following week.
All the rest of the instructions remain the same. Vaccinations are by appointment only at the county’s point of distribution (POD) at Lakeshore Mall, 901 U.S. 27 North in Sebring. People can get registered online at bit.ly/HCvaccine or by phone at 863-402-6780 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on any day — but not on site.
Appointments are from noon to 4 p.m. Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, and registrants will receive a phone call or email, based on the registrant’s preference, from county officials with their appointment day and time.
When they arrive, they will need to allow an hour to get through all the stations, in addition to the time taken in line, and will need to bring identification, wear a face mask at all times and observe social distancing at all times.
This week’s allocation of vaccine from the Florida Department of Health is 500 doses, which have been scheduled already.
Officials also ask people to remember that they will not have full immunity until after they receive the second dose of vaccine, approximately 28 days after the first. Until then, they need to continue taking all pandemic precautions.