Collier County leaders look to create committee to plan reopening of economy, beaches, parks
A month ago, one by one, layers of public life in Collier County and other parts of Florida were stripped from our social fabric to help slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.
First mass gatherings, like the annual St. Patrick's Day parade in downtown Naples and the Collier County Fair, were canceled. Then, Gov. Ron DeSantis announced the closing of bars and nightclubs, before eventually restaurants were limited to takeout.
Local officials closed beaches, one of the main selling points for the state's tourism industry, across Southwest Florida and the rest of Florida. Naples closed its city parks. Pools, gyms and community centers shuttered.
Now, as officials are faced with the economic fallout from the closings and a growing mountain of unemployment filings, a movement is afoot across the state to infuse some normalcy into everyday lives again and restart a sputtering economy.
In case you missed it:Coronavirus-related closures extended for Naples, Collier governments
Some communities in northern Florida have reopened beaches with some caveats. A statewide Re-Open Florida Task Force met for an organizational and informational meeting Monday.
In Collier, too, leaders are looking to form a committee to deal with the eventual reopening of the economy, parks, beaches and government buildings.
Collier Commission Chairman Burt Saunders said Monday the exact makeup of the committee is not yet known, but that the county will likely have some recommendations by midweek.
"We're still trying to figure out who to recommend on this," he said.
Saunders said he would prefer to keep the committee small with maybe 10 people on it. Representatives from local governments in Collier and different industry sectors along with medical professionals would likely be a part of it, he said.
Photos:Inside NCH Baker Hospital as health care professionals treat COVID-19 patients
"Everything we do has to be driven by what" medical professionals have to say, Saunders said.
He said the county plans to hold a commission meeting April 28 to deal with some smaller items typically reserved for the consent agenda, get an update on the status of the outbreak and discuss the creation of the task force.
Saunders said county officials want to wait on the governor's recommendation and guidance before they move forward with forming their committee. DeSantis, he said, is expected to get recommendations from his own task force by Friday.
More:Gov. DeSantis convenes economic task force as deaths approach 800
"It really didn't make much sense to have a meeting prior to that...," Saunders said. "Obviously the governor is going to be driving the ship here."
Naples will work with the county on reopening the economy, Mayor Teresa Heitmann said Monday.
Staff in the city met briefly Friday to try and form plans, Heitmann said. Naples, Marco Island and Collier County staffs are expected to meet Wednesday, she said.
Naples Fire Chief and Emergency Manager Pete DiMaria said more COVID-19 testing is needed to make a proper decision on reopening parts of the county.
“We need testing. We need a lot more accurate data to make a good decision for public health, safety and welfare,” he said. “The one thing I think we’re lacking is enough data to make a good decision.”
More:Coronavirus updates: State reports 465 confirmed COVID-19 cases for Collier County
Heitmann said all factors will be looked at in reopening the city.
“The public’s safety and health is a priority,” she said. “I know the citizens are anxious to get back on the beaches and businesses ready to start up.”
Michael Dalby, CEO and president of the Greater Naples Chamber of Commerce, echoed those comments.
Dalby said he had a phone call with Sean Callahan, executive director of corporate business operations for the county, last week about the task force and said he thinks he will be on it.
Health and safety has to be the No. 1 priority, Dalby said, and the process to reopen has to be informed by science and healthcare professionals to "make sure we do it in a measured manner."
In Collier, like elsewhere, the hospitality industry, along with retailers and personal services like hairdressers and barbers, "has been heavily impacted" by the pandemic and many businesses and employers are eager to restart the economy, he said.
"But we know that has to be done incrementally," Dalby said.
For the business community, he said, it's important to "define the rules" and come up with a timeline to give them some certainty.
Whereas at the outset of the outbreak in Florida, first restrictions were implemented that eventually turned into closures, Dalby said he could picture things happen in "reverse order" now.
Restaurants, for instance, first were told they could have 50% capacity before officials eventually closed dining in altogether.
More:One month after dining rooms closed, Florida restaurants are devastated, uncertain
"You're trying to figure out a way to take care of your community," Dalby said. "We certainly want to try and get people back to work."
But Dalby cautioned that it's important to be careful and mindful so that cases don't spike again.
As of Monday morning, Collier had 465 confirmed COVID-19 cases. State health officials confirmed the county's first three cases of the novel coronavirus on March 11.
The state has reported eight deaths in Collier from the virus as of Monday morning.
What a timeline for the reopening process could look like is not yet clear. Some medical professionals, although not in favor of reopening right now, said starting the planning process seems "prudent."
"While we know it's too early to reopen, as we have not seen consistent reduction in confirmed cases of COVID-19, it does seem prudent to begin planning how reopening will work in each stage of the process," said Dr. David Wilkinson, president of the Collier County Medical Society, in a statement.
"There are many facets to consider from the healthcare and economic perspectives, therefore a thorough review is ideal."
Some Florida communities, with DeSantis' blessing, have already forged ahead.
Officials in the Jacksonville area last week announced the opening of beaches there with restricted hours and for certain activities only. DeSantis on Friday gave some municipalities the go-ahead to reopen beaches, if they can do so safely.
“This is an opportunity for people to come to the beach and get some exercise a couple times a day,” Jacksonville Beach Mayor Charlie Latham said Friday. “It’s not a sunbathing opportunity.”
Images of people flocking to the reopened beaches garnered national attention over the weekend with some on social media criticizing the reopening.
Latham said Friday that if the situation becomes "untenable or unmanageable" officials are prepared to close the beach again.
“If some reason it turns into Helter Skelter, we’ll pull the plug,” he said.
The Florida Times-Union contributed to this report.
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