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Highlands CARES reopens today

SEBRING — Phase 2 of CARES Act funding has started taking applications.

The application process will close at 11:59 p.m. Nov. 10, a little less than a week from now, so anyone who didn’t get approved or didn’t apply in time for Phase 1 funding has until then to complete an application.

Anyone who did receive funding in Phase 1 is ineligible for Phase 2 funding.

Details are available at highlandscares.com, where people can apply 24 hours per day every day until the deadline.

The site also includes lists of the documentation people will need to complete their applications.

Individuals who need assistance filling out applications must call the United Way of Central Florida at 863-648-1500, ext. 263, or use the United Way 211 information service.

Businesses and non-profit organizations may get help filling out applications by calling the Greater Sebring Chamber of Commerce at 863-385-8448.

Assistant County Administrator Laurie Hurner and Emergency Manager LaTosha Reiss have taken over administration of the program in the absence of Legislative Affairs and Grants Coordinator Sydney Armstrong, who took a new job last month.

Clerk of Courts Jerome Kaszubowski said he has six staff members working full time on the task of auditing applications to ensure they get faster approval than in the last round.

“Hopefully, we will produce a better product,” County Administrator Randy Vosburg said of applications being processed by County Commission staff and sent to Clerk of Courts staff.

In her report to commissioners, Reiss said she had “good news” about the Phase 1 disbursements: Almost all of the $2 million budgeted for businesses had been paid out, along with $.234 million for individuals.

As said in earlier reports from Vosburg, the individual payments were higher than the $1.25 million originally budgeted by the board, but it was the area of greatest need in the county and administration exercised flexibility to cover it.

Of the approximate $4.6 million allocated to the county in the first phase, the county has paid out a total of $4.67 million as follows:

- $1.73 million approved to go to for-profit businesses and $210,000 to non-profit businesses, out of a $2 million budget, with $1.81 million paid out to date.

- $2.34 million approved to go to individuals, increased from a $1.25 million budget, with $2.11 million paid out to date.

- $163,350 approved for community proposals, out of a $250,000 budget, with all funds paid out to date.

- $8,201.35 approved for personal protection equipment, out of a $120,000 budget, with all funds paid out to date.

- $5,673 approved for testing events, out of a $500,000 budget, with all funds paid out, to date.

- $183,550 approved for administration of the funds, out of a $513,000 budget, with $228,937 spent to date.

Reiss said that of the 957 business applications, 659 went to the Clerk’s Office for final audit. Out of 3,221 individual applications, 1,560 went to the Clerk’s Office for final audit.

She said $126,500 in business grants are still in the audit process, as are $226,500 in individual applications.

Commissioner Don Elwell told Reiss he didn’t expect she would have any shortage of demand for the second round of grants.

When asked how they will be allocated, she said the projected percentages have been set to match what came out of Phase 1.

Mask question raised again; citizen told to 'sit down'

SEBRING — Citizens at Tuesday’s Board of County Commission meeting brought up a mask mandate again and were denied. After one of them began to argue the point, he was told twice to “sit down.”

Michelle Gresham of Avon Park Lakes, noting that winter residents and the 12 Hours of Sebring will arrive soon amid increased COVID-19 numbers, asked if the county would revisit the question of mandating masks.

“I know of a house with 13 people, and there’s COVID in it,” Gresham said.

Commission Chair Ron Handley started to say that the county is following the state’s lead, but Gresham interrupted.

“But the state delegates to you guys,” Gresham said. “You guys are our leaders right now.”

Commissioners didn’t answer.

“Crickets? Really?” Gresham asked.

She then said the house of 13 has a mother who is sick but is required to come in to work.

Handley repeated that the county is monitoring the situation. Gresham asked when that might change, and Handley said the majority of people at public hearings on the matter did not want a mask mandate. He said those people had a different opinion on the matter.

George Miller of Sebring pointed out that commissioners voted twice against being a Second Amendment sanctuary before voting for it, and told them that when they believe in something, “you will act.” He then took issue with the use of the word “opinion” with regard to the pandemic.

“If we talk about opinion, we talk about what’s your favorite movie,” Miller said. “Because there are a large number of us who feel that you are failing us, and this is an excuse, and it is not something that would have held water with any other issue.”

He said infection numbers have spiked after the latest re-opening phase and warned people coming for a big sporting event could increase economic troubles.

“People get sick, they can’t shop,” Miller said. “People get sick, they can’t run their store.”

He asked what arguments citizens should bring to the next county commission to get a policy set apart from the state and to have more than one or two commissioners wear masks.

Commission Chair Ron Handley suggested Miller return to state his opinion, and said the “opinion” on masks was based on what other citizens wanted.

Miller disagreed, restating that the word was inappropriate.

He asked again what citizens needed to do, and Commissioner Arlene Tuck said she didn’t believe in masks because people sweat into them and they don’t work when wet. Instead, she said, she uses lots of hand sanitizer and keeps six feet or more from people.

Miller asked his question again, and Commissioner Jim Brooks said the facts depend on who makes the statement. Brooks said instructions on what to do had changed a few times since the beginning of the pandemic.

When Miller tried to retort, Brooks said he didn’t want to argue.

“You asked me a question. I was going to answer it,” Brooks said. “Then I’d appreciate if you’d sit down.”

Miller then began to say he didn’t need to stand down.

“You don’t have to do anything,” Brooks said. “You don’t want to listen to me anyway, so sit down.”

Miller again said he wanted to know what scientific facts would change commissioners minds.

“Thank you for listening and we will figure something out,” Miller said before sitting.

The discussion followed Emergency Manager LaTosha Reiss’ latest report on local COVID-19 numbers, which she said were “not looking as good as they were last time I was here.”

The last report on Oct. 20 showed an estimate of 326 active cases. Tuesday’s new estimate was 403.

Reiss said the county was ranked seventh that morning in the state for case growth, with a 5.95% growth rate, up from 17th with a 3.93% growth rate.

There were 34 residents hospitalized in the county Tuesday morning, compared with 17 on Oct. 20, she said.

Fifteen more people had died since then, she said.

The county had gone from 13.9 cases per 100,000 people to 20.6 cases per 100,000, according to the Harvard Global Health Institute, the same as the entire state of Florida, she said.

The case doubling rate had gone up to 85 days, she said, but a line graph of total new case numbers, marked for the dates of the the initial stay-at-home order, Phase 1 and Phase 2 reopenings, school reopenings and Phase 3 reopening, showed a spike at the end of 473 new cases in a month.

Participation in free drive-through testing has also gone up, she said, from an average of 60-70 vehicles per day to 130 per day last week. Anyone with symptoms, she said, should not wait for free testing but should call their doctor for an immediate test.

Tuck asked Reiss if any of the tests would show an infection for H1N1 or bird flu. Reiss said no. The COVID-19 test is specific to just that one virus and doesn’t test for any others.

Those who have been tested before are listed as having had multiple tests, Reiss said, but that information is protected under health privacy laws.

When Handley asked if state officials have suggested new restrictions, Reiss said they have not.

Commissioner Don Elwell asked about preparations for arriving winter residents and increased holiday gatherings.

“It comes down to personal accountability,” Reiss said. “We are really encouraging people to continue to wear their mask when appropriate, practice social distancing, wash your hands, clean commonly touched surfaces: All those things we’ve been encouraging since the beginning.”

In Phase 3, with no statewide rules or mandated restrictions, Reiss said the responsibility falls on individuals to make those efforts, for their safety and others’.

County Administrator Randy Vosburg said the county has ordered personal protection equipment kits for local hotels, given the imminent arrival of fans for the 12 Hours of Sebring race next week.

“We’ll have some of those PPE kits to encourage people from out of town to wear masks, while they’re here,” Vosburg said.

Elwell suggested that people with “’Rona Fatigue” have relaxed too much and not worn masks as they should.

“There’s just a lot to be said for individuals that have very, very short-term memories,” Elwell said.

School virus cases up with 19 last week

SEBRING — The number of COVID-19 cases in Highlands County public schools were low the first couple of weeks of October, but there was an increase in the second half of the month.

Deputy Superintendent Andrew Lethbridge said there was an increase in the amount of positive cases/quarantined over the last two weeks of October. That is consistent with the uptick in cases seen in the community.

Avon Park High School has seen the largest number of cases for October with six positive student cases, he said.

Keeping that number in perspective, that is an average of around 1.5 positive student cases per week for the month, Lethbridge noted.

“We are monitoring the school closely,” he said. “We are working with the Health Department and school administration monitoring different students that have been quarantined to see if those students start having symptoms and become positive. Thus far, we still believe there has been little evidence of spread at the school, but that can quickly change.”

There are roughly 50 students out on quarantine at Avon Park High School based on case contact, Lethbridge said.

As a reminder, keeping distant when possible assists in limiting the number of individuals that need to quarantine, he said. Wearing a mask can assist in preventing the spread. Washing or sanitizing hands is also important.

The Florida Department of Health’s school listing for the previous week (Oct. 25-31) shows a total of 19 cases at nine School Board of Highlands County schools:

• Avon Park High — four students.

• Avon Park Middle — three students.

• Hill-Gustat Middle — one student and one teacher.

• Lake Country Elementary — one student and one unknown.

• Lake Placid High — two students.

• Memorial Elementary — one student.

• Sebring High — one student and one staff.

• Sebring Middle — one unknown.

• Woodlawn Elementary — one teacher and one unknown.

The School Board of Highlands County’s COVID-19 Dashboard list of cases shows no cases to date listed for November.

South Florida State College had two cases in the previous week – one student and one staff member.

The other Heartland counties with five or more new cases from last week are: Hardee with nine cases, Hendry six and Okeechobee with five new cases.

Fansler apologized to those he offended

LAKE PLACID — Lake Placid Police Chief James Fansler was suspended without pay from Oct. 12-19 as a result of comments made on social media and in a public meeting that were deemed inappropriate.

Fansler has promised to be more conscientious about making comments on his personal Facebook page as well as the Lake Placid Police Department’s page. Recent comments he felt were humorous actually offended some people, as previously reported by the Highlands News-Sun in October.

Town Administrator Phil Williams and Mayor John Holbrook met with Fansler on Oct. 7 when the suspension was implemented. In the Letter of Discipline, the suspension was given for “an overall series of events that is contrary to the leadership demanded for a Town of Lake Placid Department Head.”

The letter cited recent Facebook comments as well as “disrespectful” comments made to a council member in a public meeting in September. The letter also referred to a 2018 Facebook incident with a county employee. Fansler apologized to the council member in a public meeting after listening to a recording to the meeting and realized he came across “too aggressive.” Holbrook and Williams “talked” to Fansler about the town meeting incident.

In the letter, Williams stated Fansler’s discipline is for a “recurring attitude of a department head“ not consistent with what Holbrook and he demanded.

Holbrook said the department heads are held to a higher standard and Fansler’s behavior amounted to conduct unbecoming of one.

George Miller, local pastor, made his objections known to the Facebook comments, which he felt were offensive to many in the community. Fansler later called Miller to apologize for his remarks, saying they were never meant to harm anyone. Miller later called the experience “positive.”

“Apologies were never a stipulation in my suspension,” Fansler said, acknowledging the apology came after the meeting with town officials. “I chose to do what was right.”

“I feel validation that there are proper avenues to express concerns far better than on Facebook,” Miller said. “It feels good as a citizen and local pastor to know that local leaders hear our concerns and take them seriously. I am deeply impressed with James Fansler that he called me personally to express remorse about his posts. I really appreciate how he reached out to me with what felt like a productive conversation that we had.”

Miller was invited to meet with Williams to discuss the matter on Oct. 5.

Williams said there were occasions in the past that Fansler’s posts were “immature” and could be construed as discriminatory.

Williams believes Fansler has “taken these things (concerns of town officials) seriously.” Williams said it is nothing that he has not applied to himself and said he has written himself up for saying a council member was “vindictive.”

Williams has the authority to suspend or terminate town employees. In this instance, Holbrook and Williams agreed on the private meeting and suspension.

Fansler’s letter also stated, “Were some (of) the actions described herein done by a regular employee, a discipline may not be implemented; however, supervisors are held to a higher standard.”

“I’m not going to air discipline problems to the press,” Williams said. “I never have and I never will.”

Miller was shocked to hear about Fansler’s suspension. Williams said in an interview on Nov. 2 that Miller did not ask for the suspension, nor any discipline for that matter.

Williams did bring up an incident that took place in November 2019 where another person was offended at something Fansler wrote on Facebook. Fansler’s personnel file has a “Letter of Counsel” regarding that incident.

There is a social networking section in the Town employee handbook, that all personnel receive.

The letter of discipline was not all bad. It recognized Fansler’s “considerable contributions“ to his department and town.

“I am thankful for the leadership of Town Administrator Phil Williams and Mayor John Holbrook who, unlike many municipalities around the country, were not quick to terminate,” Fansler said. “Rather, they give opportunity for growth in character development. We all need some developing in our character from time to time. I take the opportunity to continue working as the Lake Placid Police Department’s chief seriously and will continue to grow and do my job to the best of my ability.”

Holbrook said, “We have a lot of money tied up in him. We should give him a chance to grow and be the police chief Lake Placid deserves.”