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Mandatory masks? Commissioners agree to discuss it

SEBRING — Next Tuesday, Highlands County commissioners will discuss whether or not to require cloth face masks in certain situations in the county.

“Why did we have to have a special resolution on the Second Amendment and not on masks?” Michelle Gresham asked commissioners Tuesday night. “We had a big resolution to support the Second Amendment with the county all in an uproar, but we can’t have one for masks?”

Gresham said she had a petition signed by nearly 400 people in Highlands County who want to see a mask mandate and better testing and contact tracing.

County Attorney Joy Carmichael answered that the county has approved a resolution for the COVID-19 pandemic that says the county will go along with what Gov. Ron DeSantis has outlined for the state.

DeSantis said at the end of June that he would not make face masks mandatory across the state, arguing that putting criminal penalties on failure to comply would probably backfire. At the same time, he said he wouldn’t stand in the way of local rules requiring masks.

Local jurisdictions across Florida, both municipalities and counties, have issued ordinances and resolutions to require people to wear face masks inside public buildings and businesses.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended people wear cloth face coverings in public settings and when around people who don’t live in their own household, especially when social-distancing is difficult to maintain.

The CDC has also said cloth face coverings may help prevent those who have COVID-19 from spreading the virus to others, and that masks are most likely to reduce the spread of the virus when widely used by people in public settings.

However, the CDC advises that cloth face coverings should not be worn by children under the age of 2 or by anyone who has trouble breathing, is unconscious, incapacitated, or otherwise unable to remove the mask without assistance.

Tuesday night’s meeting was a budget workshop, with no items on the agenda for formal approval. That, plus the fact that any restrictive measure would need to have public hearings, commissioners said they could not address the matter that night.

“We could alter it,” Commission Chair Ron Handley said of the county’s current pandemic emergency resolution, “[but we] can’t do it tonight regardless.”

Commissioner Don Elwell said that the commission would have Sheriff Paul Blackman present at next Tuesday’s 9 a.m. meeting, “to get insight on how we can enforce this.”

“You have 400-ish signatures there,” Elwell said. Close to 400 overnight, Gresham said: The online petition had more than 340 signatures in a 24-hour period.

Elwell said the county has people “extremely against” the masks. “This could change overnight,” Elwell said.

The Florida Department of Health reported 315,775 total cases in Florida at 11 a.m. Thursday and 4,782 deaths.

Highlands County had 656 total cases Wednesday, with 13 deaths, up from 627 cases on Wednesday.

Overall, Elwell said, if the commission agrees to look into mandatory masks, they would look at it next Tuesday and talk about it with the sheriff.

“You didn’t bring in the sheriff for the Second Amendment,” Gresham said. “Just saying.”

County Administrator Randy Vosburg asked commissioners if they wanted to have anything drafted ahead of time or just have the discussion at the meeting.

By consensus, commissioners agreed to have an item on the agenda for discussion, but nothing written up yet.

LP Firehouse plans could be stalled

LAKE PLACID — The past few years, the Town of Murals has been talking about relocating its fire department (originally volunteers) to a better facility. The new Highlands County firehouse/EMT building will house a paid staff 24/7.

In the past, different locations have been suggested for the new fire department. The last likely spot was located behind Publix on Hillcrest Avenue off of Dal Hall Boulevard. This lot of land has fallen from favor for a laundry list of reasons. The new and highly-favored lot is on Southwest Vista Drive, which is accessible from U.S. 27 to the north and Lake June Road to the south. The 2.44-acre property is being donated by AdventHealth to the town for the purpose of the new firehouse.

Council members said during Monday night’s meeting that they are hopeful a traffic light would follow after the firehouse was installed. The light would probably be at the Vista Drive/U.S. 27 intersection with St. John’s Street across the street to also benefit. Councilwoman Debra Worley said she is hopeful that a light would be put in at the intersection. She also said the intersection would eventually be a major one because of future plans.

Councilman Ray Royce made it clear if the firehouse was built on Vista Drive there was no guarantee of a light right away. He did agree with Worley that there will eventually be more businesses and perhaps a commerce park in the area. A stop light through Department of Transportation would run several hundred thousand dollars, he said.

“I think there will eventually be a light there,” Royce said. “There is a whole bunch of stuff that makes that area attractive.”

During the meeting, the council approved the land for Lake Placid land use/semi public as well as rezoning the property to support a firehouse. However, the council’s own planning rules may sideline the project before it even gets off the ground.

There were two main objections to the firehouse and/or its site. The smaller offense was a proposed 10-foot signage while everyone else has to stick to a 6-foot sign. That was dealt with easily enough with a motion by Royce.

The major hurdle of the night was the proposed building would be compromised of 25% metal. Metal is not currently welcomed in the Caladium Capital of the World. The current land development regulations, LDR, only allow for 10% metal. Worley was adamant that the building would have to have another “skin.” She said it was not fair that other business owners are told they cannot have a metal building so the government should not be allowed to do so. Worley said, as a real estate agent, she has to tell people they have to finish their exteriors almost daily.

“I agree; we have had that same standard for a long time,” Councilman Greg Sapp said. “Even industrial areas, it doesn’t make sense to let it go here since it’s not fair to the rest that had to go that route.”

The (25%) metal building is considerably cheaper to build. Royce said he has heard the current concept would be $200,000 cheaper to build than if the county had to finish the exterior. Royce said he understood the LDRs but given the site’s location, perhaps it could be allowed in order to get a 24/7 staffed fire station.

“I just want you all to understand, that if we hold them to the siding issue, that could be determining factor that there is not a new fire department/EMS station built in town,” Royce told the council. “So, as long as we are willing to do that, and without that station, then the current facility we have does not have the capability to house 24/7 personnel. What the county will do is staff that personnel elsewhere.”

Royce said he felt it was more important to have a 24/7 staffed fire house in the area than siding and said it was a trade-off.

Sapp said it was probably time to look at building rules. Royce said anyone building could apply with the plan development process for what they want to do.

Worley said the council should not be pressured and Lake Placid has standards and everyone knows it.

Town Attorney Bert J. Harris III suggested the county commissioners come down and see if some kind of compromise could be reached through conversations. Perhaps the town could sell the location the current station 36 is in and give the county some funds. Mayor John Holbrook said it was premature to talk of selling the current building because they don’t know how fast it will sell and for how much.

Highlands County Fire Chief Marc Bashoor said Tuesday he would love to have a grand firehouse, but that’s unrealistic with the budget the county has.

“Historically, the county built small and efficiently as possible with little thought about 24/7 occupation,” he said. “I don’t care if it’s made of Legos as long as it’s hurricane compliant and the function serves the people working there.”

A record 156 Florida COVID deaths in day

SEBRING — A record of 156 deaths in a day from COVID-19 has pushed the Florida death toll from the virus to 4,677 while 13,965 new cases brings the statewide total to 315,775, according to Thursday’s report from the Florida Department of Health.

Highlands County added 28 new cases for a total of 656. The number of those who are currently hospitalized due to the virus increased from 54 on Wednesday to 64 on Thursday. The number of virus deaths remains at 13 in Highlands.

The majority of the county’s cases over the course of the pandemic have been in three zip codes — 220 cases in 33870 (Sebring), 211 cases in 33825 (Avon Park) and 83 in 33852 (Lake Placid).

The median age of the Highlands County cases is 47 while the statewide median age of virus cases is 39.

Among those who have been tested for COVID-19, Highlands continues to have a low percentage (5.6%) who test positive. Statewide, the positive rate 11.2%.

Some of the highest positive testing rates are in the Heartland with Glades at 26.4%, Hendry at 19.9%, Hardee at 18.4% and DeSoto at 13.9%.

Miami-Dade County has a positive COVID-19 testing rate of 16.3%.

Three counties had quadruple-digit increases in virus cases: Miami-Dade, 3,092; Broward, 1,433, and Orange 1,379.

There were 21 counties with three-digit increases in cases led by Palm Beach, 915; Lee, 835; Duval, 831; Hillsborough, 538, and Osceola, 516.

The American Health Care Association (AHCA) and National Center for Assisted Living (NCAL), in a letter to the National Governors Association (NGA), warned states of imminent outbreaks at nursing homes and assisted living facilities given the major spikes in new cases in several states across the U.S., combined with serious personal protective equipment (PPE) shortages and significant delays in getting testing results for long-term care residents and caregivers.

The AHCA and NCAL call for expediting lab processing time and a solution for on-site testing with reliable and rapid results, additional support for PPE supplies – especially N-95 masks and for states to work in close coordination with long term care providers on reopening facilities to visitations.

Also, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME Florida) reports that the safety of its members and the public at large is of primary importance to the union that represents thousands of custodians, janitors, bus drivers, food service workers, office and clerical staff, and many other workers on the front-line lines of this pandemic.

“We are very concerned about the Florida Department of Education’s order to reopen schools beginning next month as Florida emerges as a global epicenter of COVID-19 cases,” the union states.

“We urge Governor DeSantis and the Department of Education to prioritize the health and welfare of students and public-school employees as we proceed with reopening schools this fall. We need a responsible plan that minimizes the threat of the virus in our schools. That plan currently does not exist. We must do better,” according to AFSCME.

Former Commissioner Claude Howerton passes away

SEBRING – Claude Franklin “C.F.” Howerton passed away Thursday morning, July 16, 2020 at the age of 95. Howerton served as a Highlands County commissioner from 1982-1989.

“On behalf of the board of county commissioners, we are saddened by the news of the passing of Claude Howerton,” Ron Handley, chair of the Highlands County Board of County Commission, said.

“Claude was well respected within the community and I have known him my entire adult life. I knew him to be a kind and fair person and someone who always had the best interest of Highlands County at heart,” Handley said. “My condolences go to his family, his four children and his grandchildren and great-grandchildren.”

Howerton was born April 16, 1925 in a house in Dover, and raised in Turkey Creek, outside of Plant City, where he graduated high school in 1943.

In his early life, he was a farmer and hauled citrus to markets. Howerton joined the U.S. Navy and was stationed in Pensacola during World War II.

After WWII, he began working for the Soil Conservation Service in January 1949 and moved to the Highlands County area. Howerton met his wife, Peggy O’Neal, in Highlands County and they were married in 1949. He retired from the Soil Conservation Service in 1982.

That same year Howerton was elected to the Highlands County Board of County Commission, where he represented District 2.

His family said Howerton loved being a civil servant and working with people. He was heavily involved with many significant projects during his tenure, including the selection and location of the current landfill site. He loved being able to serve the people of Highlands County and he always tried to be a fair person, family said. He also served on the board of directors for Glades Electric for several decades when power service was being expanded into areas of Highlands County.

After his time as a commissioner, Howerton continued working in the family sod farm and earth equipment businesses. In recent years, he also enjoyed spending time with his grandchildren and great-grandchildren and working in his large garden. He was very active in several fraternal organizations such as the Masons, Shriners and Elks Lodge.

At the time of his death, he was living in Lorida.

Howerton is the father of Charles Howerton, foreman at the Highlands County shell pit, and the grandfather of Highlands County Engineer and Solid Waste Director Clinton Howerton Jr.

Howerton is preceded in death by his wife, Peggy, who passed away in 1999. He is survived by sons, Charles Howerton and Clinton Howerton Sr.; daughters Cheri Hornsby and Cheryl Howerton; and many grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Highlands County government has lowered flags Thursday to half-staff in honor of C.F. Howerton. Flags will be at half-staff until his burial.