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Alarmed by Collier County’s rising count of cases related to the novel coronavirus, Collier County leaders are looking to explore regional steps to take if the situation gets worse, most notably potentially shutting down non-essential businesses. 

Collier commissioners on Tuesday unanimously voted to allow Commission Chairman Burt Saunders and County Manager Leo Ochs to begin talks with Lee County officials to see if they would want to jointly ask Gov. Ron DeSantis to give the two counties the authority to close those businesses if cases continue to rise rapidly in Southwest Florida.

Commission Chairman Burt Saunders, noting a recent Daily News and News-Press report about 180 employees across Lee Health and NCH Healthcare System that had to be quarantined because of possible exposure to the virus, brought up the item during a county commission meeting Tuesday.

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“It would be a very drastic step for us to take, but at the same time, I think that we’re living in times where drastic measures are necessary,” said Saunders, who like commissioners Donna Fiala and Andy Solis called into the meeting. “And if we do the right things, I think we can look back and feel comfortable that we did what we could to protect our citizens.”

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Saunders said that Miami-Dade and Broward counties came together recently and asked the governor for authority to essentially close nonessential businesses. If Collier were to take those steps in the future it could look to “pretty exhaustive” lists that have been used in other counties, defining what would have to close and what could stay open, Saunders said after the meeting. 

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Examples for businesses that would be allowed to remain open would include grocery stores, gas stations, convenience stores, pharmacies, businesses that do home repairs, water treatment companies, banks and even farmers markets, among others, he said.

Any potential action that would be taken by the commission “would have to be well thought out,” Saunders said, adding that he viewed it as a "multi-step process" that would allow the county to act at a later date if deemed necessary based on the data.

"We needed to be prepared," he said. 

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Collier's move Tuesday comes against a backdrop of local governments taking matters into their own hands to try to slow the spread of COVID-19 as DeSantis has resisted calls to order a statewide shutdown of all nonessential businesses or mandating that all residents stay at home.

Instead, DeSantis has ordered all people flying into Florida from the New York/New Jersey area to quarantine themselves for 14 days upon arrival or face misdemeanor charges.

At least 11 states, on the advice of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, have enacted some sort of stay-at-home or shelter in place order, along with directives on closing nonessential businesses.

In Miami-Dade nail salons, golf courses, offices, trampoline parks, casinos and social clubs were among the locations that had to close down last week after a local order was issued, the Miami Herald reported

A number of businesses there were allowed to remain open, including construction sites, engineering firms, pet supply stores, pool and landscaping services, and child care if administered to groups of 10 or fewer, the newspaper reported. The Miami-Dade order also included exemptions for grocery stores, pharmacies, banks and other businesses considered vital to daily life, according to the Herald.

Broward County announced similar measures on Sunday.

In Collier, not only health care workers have had to be pulled off the job due to potential exposure to the virus. 

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Collier Sheriff Kevin Rambosk, speaking to a nearly empty dais with only commissioners Bill McDaniel and Penny Taylor attending Tuesday's county commission meeting in person, said that across law enforcement, fire departments and EMS in the county about 80 agency members are not at work because they’re awaiting some portion of a test result. 

Rambosk lamented the inability to get test kits for those working on the front lines of the virus outbreak, and said the state and national government needs to continue to be pressed for test kits.

“This past weekend, we believe that there needed to be more testing of doctors, nurses, first responders than we have test kits for,” he said. “And again this has nothing to do with our public health department here. It has to do with the inability to get test kits.”

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Rambosk said the agency started making contact with legislators and noted that while Collier doesn’t have the density of population that the east coast has, “if you looked at our numbers per capita last week, we were extremely high.”

“Even though we had a lesser number of cases,” he said.

In Collier, cases rose again Tuesday with the state by midday reporting 41 positive tests. Thirty-two of Collier’s total cases are listed as Naples residents with one in Ave Maria.

That means the county’s total confirmed cases per 100,000 people is about 10.83. 

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By comparison, Miami-Dade and Broward, two hot spots in Florida with the most confirmed cases so far, have rates per 100,000 people of 12.24 and 15.94, respectively.

Palm Beach County, which so far has reported the third-most confirmed cases in the state, has a rate per 100,000 people of about 6.80.

“I’m very concerned about the infection rate that Sheriff Rambosk mentioned,” Saunders said. “We don’t have a large number, but in terms of the rate itself, it’s rather high.”

Potential future steps, like shutting down nonessential businesses, only make sense if they’re done regionally, Solis said, because otherwise “everybody will be going to Lee County or vice versa.”  

“I would be in favor of at least starting that conversation with our neighbors,” he said.

Tuesday's move by Collier leaders is the latest in a cascade of measures local governments in Southwest Florida have begun to take since last week to try to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Collier, like other local governments in the area, has already shut down its county beaches. Sheriff's Office drones are now monitoring them daily. The city of Naples, too, closed its beaches and announced on Monday that it was closing its parks, as well. Marco Island also has closed its public beach access.

Collier officials said they plan to send a text message alert, in English, Spanish and Creole, to residents in the Immokalee area Tuesday afternoon to urge them to monitor health conditions and wash hands.

"It's not a fear thing, it's just a reminder, because we're not seeing that level of social distancing necessarily in Immokalee that we have seen elsewhere," Dan Summers, director of Collier County’s bureau of emergency services, told commissioners. "Or there might be some information challenges."

Although commissioners on Tuesday unanimously agreed to reach out to Lee to gauge the neighboring county’s interest about taking more drastic steps should the need arise, some on the board were careful to note their concerns about how this could impact the business community. 

They emphasized that the county was only just exploring talks with Lee and noted the need for “personal responsibility” in the community.

“I have a great, great concern about the economic toll of this virus on the community,” Taylor said. “And so I would caution my colleagues to move very carefully and very slowly on this. At some point, personal responsibility has to play into this.”

McDaniel echoed Taylor's comments and said there is a need for more data.

"Having these discussions to find out from a regional basis what is prudent or not is fine, but we just don't have enough data," he said.

Lee County Commission Chairman Brian Hamman said Tuesday he had not been contacted by Saunders yet, but would "of course" have the discussion with him. 

“We’re definitely monitoring the situation in Lee County closely. We have not been advised to shut down nonessential businesses in Lee County by health officials or state officials," he told The News-Press. "We take all of their advice, whether it's from the CDC or the state emergency response team or even our local Department of Public Health very seriously. Until we get advice in that manner I think it’s really hard to make that call and go and shut down people’s businesses.”

USA TODAY - Florida Network reporter Bill Smith and the Tallahassee Demorat contributed this report.

Connect with the reporter at patrick.riley@naplesnews.com or on Twitter @PatJRiley.

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Rachel Meltzer was one of many volunteers who helped hand out free meals to those in the hospitality industry who have been laid off due to COVID-19 on Saturday, March 21. Naples Daily News

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