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Pinellas County Commission Votes to Open Beaches, Pools, Daycare Playgrounds

in city hall/news
This sign is coming down. New signs will advise safe-distancing.

CLEARWATER – The public beaches in Pinellas County will reopen Monday morning with safe-distancing rules in effect while public swimming pools and daycare center playgrounds will reopen Thursday.

The Pinellas County Commission also extended the county’s “state of emergency” for another week (to May 8) at its Tuesday morning meeting.

After much discussion and numerous public comments, the Commission voted 6 to 1 to open the public beaches on Monday at 7 a.m.

Commissioner Ken Welsh voted against the resolution saying he felt it is too early and there has not been enough testing for the virus in the county.

Meanwhile, the Marina pier and boardwalk in Safety Harbor will remain closed as city officials are waiting to see what Governor Ron DeSantis announces Wednesday. The next meeting of the Safety Harbor Commission is Monday.

The Commission closed the public beaches on March 20 as a safe guard against spreading the COVID-19 virus.

Public swimming pools and playgrounds were also closed in March. But after nearly five weeks of closure, Commissioners feel residents are willing to comply with safe-distancing practices that slow the spread of the disease.

In a unanimous vote, Commissions agreed that public pools such as community pools, hotel pools, condo pools and association pools can reopen at 6 a.m. Thursday but must stay at no more than 50 percent capacity and follow all CDC guidelines, including cleaning protocol.

Daycare playgrounds can open but with limits on how many children can be on the playground at one time. Public playgrounds will remain closed.

On the beaches, social distancing guidelines of 6 feet of separation will be in effect. Pinellas County deputies will be patrolling the beaches to make sure people are following guidelines.

Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said the county has effectively flattened the curve of new coronavirus cases and most residents are following safe-distance guidelines. He added that with college spring break over, there won’t be as many people gathering on the beaches.

He said that opening up the 35 miles of beachfront would spread out the beach goers instead of bottling them up in smaller areas such as what has been happening along the Courtney-Campbell Causeway and Edgewater Drive recently.

He made a strong pitch for opening the beaches, noting that more than 100 deputies will be stationed from north of Clearwater Beach down to Ft. De Soto.

Gualtieri said there will be new signs at every beach access point warning of the restrictions He said that if people weren’t complying there would be warnings first and arrests only as a last resort.

More than 650 residents were watching the meeting this morning via Zoom and YouTube, and there were many who spoke passionately about keeping the beaches closed while others spoke just as passionately about opening them up.

Commission Chair Pat Gerard had said on Friday that the Commission would take a “measured data-driven approach” to deciding on opening the beaches.

Pinellas County Administrator Barry Burton opened the meeting, observing there has been a lot of public frustration over being denied access to the public beaches and pools. He said data indicates that the rate of infections is slowing, the hospitals have plenty of capacity, and the city governments in Pinellas are in agreement.

The data indicates that the county has averaged about 15 new cases a day for the past 20 days, which includes the cases at nursing homes. Burton said the county’s positive COVID-19 tests has been about 5 percent which is lower than the statewide average of 10 percent.

Among those calling in with public comments was a nurse from Clearwater who urged the Commissioners to keep the beaches closed for health and safety reasons, while a Safety Harbor mother of five children, all under 18, made the case for opening up the beaches.

One caller cited a poll conducted Monday by St. Pete Polls that found 37 percent of residents surveyed were in favor of opening beaches and pools while 56 percent opposed the measure with eight percent undecided.

The latest report from the Florida Department of Health finds Pinellas County has totaled 709 positive cases of the virus with 31 deaths. The state of Florida has 32,800 cases with 1,171 deaths.

You can watch a replay of the four-hour meeting at https://www.youtube.com/user/pcctv1

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Ribbons for Hope tag reads "Hanga bow on your door, mailbox or tree to show support for our town during this Coronavirus pandemic. 'Together we can get through anything.' #HopefortheHarbor provided by McMullen Flower Shoppe"
Ribbons for Hope (Photo/Jarine Dotson)

Hope, unity and red ribbons

in news/town square

Betty Jo McMullen has operated B.J.’s Flower Basket at 101 Main Street for an astonishing 63 years in the same location.  Local residents recently began to notice a container outside of her store with red ribbons, free for the taking. We caught up with BJ to find out about the intent behind this. She explained that the ribbons were a symbol of hope and unity during these difficult times we’re living in now. She thought about the yellow ribbons of years past and was inspired to do something similar as a message of support for fellow Safety Harbor residents. “It’s all about help for the harbor” she says.

Bj’s Flower Basket located at 101 Main Street, Safety Harbor. (Photo/Jarine Dotson)

Her daughter Melanie and her granddaughter Ginny are making the ribbons every night while they watch TV. The ribbons are a red bow with streamers and most of them are taken by the public every day. If you see red ribbons popping up on trees and door knobs around town you’ll know this is where they came from. BJ said she just wants to give a little note of encouragement to Harbor residents to say “together we can get through anything”. More than 100 ribbons have been picked up so far. She leaves a bin out in front of her store 24 hours a day, every day of the week. All of the feedback she has gotten so far has been positive and encouraging.

A basketful of ribbons outside of BJ’s Flower Basket. (Photo/Jarine Dotson)

BJ has lived in the area her entire life and her children now live in the house she grew up in on McMullen-Booth Road.  Although the store is not open to the public right now, florists are able to make deliveries. She says they deliver flowers to people’s homes and wipe the containers off with Clorox.  She calls the resident to let them know they have flowers on their front porch or doorstep.

Tampa’s Straz Center Extents Suspension of Events

in news

The Straz Center for the Performing Arts announced today that it is suspending all performances, classes and events through May 31.

The Straz had already suspended the April events due to the COVID-19 virus and the “stay-safe-at-home” efforts to stop its spread.

Judy Lisi, Straz Center President and CEOA, notified patrons and supporters via an e-mail.

“As we continue to navigate our current world, I want to reassure you that the Straz Center and all of its staff are working diligently to reschedule the shows we know you’ve been looking forward to seeing,” she said.

“Please hold on to your tickets. We will be in touch with you about specific shows as rescheduling information becomes available,” she said.

Some events, such as the touring Broadway musicals, “Donna Summer: The Musical” and “Jesus Christ: Superstar” were already postponed because of COVID-19. And some events such as performances of the Florida Orchestra are cancelled. For a complete schedule check the Straz website: http://www.strazcenter.org

Every major venue in the area is facing similar actions. Ruth Eckerd Hall has postponed or canceled more than 50 events at the Hall and at the Nancy and David Bilheimer Capitol Theatre (which is run by Ruth Eckerd)

Some Ruth Eckerd and Capitol events in June and July involving touring artists are canceled but there some events in May still scheduled as of Friday such as “Cal: The Music of Woodstock” set for May 17 at the Capitol. Also still on the Ruth Eckerd calendar are Brit Floyd, a Pink Floyd tribute, on May 28, and The Mavericks on May 29.

The Straz Center in Tampa is closed through May. Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater faces similar conditions.

Zoom Bombing Poses Challenge for Government Meetings

in news

As the COVID-19 pandemic has swept the country, city and county officials throughout the United States are grappling with how to conduct public meetings without getting “Zoom Bombed” with pornography, profanity or racial and homophobic slurs. 

Since early March when “safe distancing” and “stay at home” guidelines forced local governments to close offices and meeting rooms, many have turned to livestreaming with the Zoom application to conduct public meetings which are required by law. 

Hackers have been able to disrupt Zoom meetings with what is called “bombing,” cutting in with obscene images or unwanted comments. 

Safety Harbor held its first virtual City Commission meeting this week via Zoom but did it without live video and by offering to take written comments to be read aloud. City residents could also call in with comments to be read or could use the raise your hand function.  There were no public comments offered. 

As for Zoom bombing, Safety Harbor City Manager Matt Spoor says, “We have Zoom under control and can quickly disable individuals.”  

“The plan for the next meeting is the same as the last one, people have multiple ways to provide (comments) including mail, email, calling in or participating on the Zoom app,” he said. 

Spoor agrees that there needs to be a way for the public to see what the City Commision is doing so Safety Harbor is working with Clearwater officials to see if they can broadcast the next meeting on their public access channel where residents could watch the Zoom meeting. 

“Each municipality has their own attorney who advises them on the laws as they are changing,” he notes. “Zoom wasn’t permissible as recently as last month for a public City Commission meeting.”  

So far, Safety Harbor has avoided the kind of livestreaming incidents that have happened in places like Laguna Beach, Calif., where a city council meeting was hacked with a live pornographic display, or the Kalamazoo, Mich., city commission meeting that was disrupted by racial slurs and profanity. 

Similar incidents have been reported from a library board meeting in East Lansing, Mich., to a city commission meeting in Camp Hill, Pa.   

The inappropriate attacks often occur when the meeting is open to public comments such as a streaming city commission meeting in Yolo County, CA., where graphic pornographic images began appearing on the screen during a public discussion on upcoming events. 

There are other problems in this livestreaming process, including inadequate technology that can be confusing to the public.  Also, it can be confusing to elected or appointed officials who at times struggle with discussing issues when they are not face-to-face. Some struggle with the mute function, or getting disconnected, or taking turns talking. 

Some places are considering dropping public comments, but states that have Open Meeting laws like Florida’s Sunshine law require governing bodies to be open to public comments. Also, journalists have raised questions about the potential to cutoff their access during meetings. 

Zoom now requires  a password to join a meeting, and new participants can be kept in a virtual waiting room until the host lets them in. Hosts can also turn off screen-sharing to block participants from posting inappropriate content. But people who are determined to harass the meetings have found ways to hack in. 

Safety Harbor's City Commission, April 20, 2020.
Safety Harbor's City Commission, April 20, 2020. (Screenshot/Walt Belcher)

Amid COVID-19 Concerns The First Virtual City Commission Meeting

in city hall/news

The first virtual meeting of the Safety Harbor City Commission Monday night used modern technology, but with no video it came off more like a radio broadcast. 

Unable to meet at City Hall because of the restrictions imposed to slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus, the Commissioners stayed home and met for an hour and eight minutes via the Internet using the Zoom application. 

Citizens who signed in to watch it on phones, tablets or computer laptops first saw a group photo of the four Commission members and Mayor Joe Ayoub. There also were various power point slides shown during the meeting. 

City Manager Matt Spoor said the reason there was no video was because there was no TV station to broadcast the Zoom meeting.

Without video, listeners had to identify speakers by their voices. And the Commissioners and Mayor could not see each other. But they managed to successfully conduct the meeting. 

Routine city business like approving a contract for $68,890 for curb and sidewalk repairs in Lincoln Heights or amending the city’s contract with the Pinellas Sheriff’s Office by $4,776 to add a 14th school crossing guard (to work the intersection of Marshall Street and 1st Ave N) were over-shadowed by concerns about the impact the virus is having on the city. 

Mayor Joe Ayoub said he wanted to thank the people of Safety Harbor for “doing such a good job in following the guidelines for safety handed down by the state and county.” 

“I see that a lot of people are taking this seriously and are wearing masks and being responsible” he said. In these difficult times, he said he is getting e-mails and messages from people saying that the city needs to have tougher regulations and e-mails saying just the opposite. “I can assure everybody that we are working to find the right balance to protect everybody’s health and well-being,” he said. 

He urged the public to “please, please, please help local businesses that are still open. A lot of them are struggling.”  

Commissioner Andy Zudrow also said he wanted to “reach out the public and just make sure that everybody remains safe and healthy during this pandemic that we’re dealing with. We’re all in this together.”  

Commissioner Nancy Besore gave a shout out salute to the city’s firefighters and chief Josh Stefancic for organizing a recent event at the Mease Hospital where, while standing six feet apart, they applauded health workers during a shift change at the hospital. “Just to see the appreciation in the eyes of the health workers over their masks was incredible,” she said. 

“Everybody is really sacrificing right now to try and stop this terrible virus so we can move ahead with our lives,” said Commissioner Carlos Diaz. He said he wanted to help Safety Harbor businesses that are struggling and asked City Manager Matt Spoor and fellow Commissioners to explore ways to help them financially.  

Commissioner Cliff Merz added that going through this difficult time “with an unchartered and uncertain future, it’s hard going downtown and through our beautiful city and finding not much happening. How we can help each other is important now.” 

At the outset of the meeting, Ayoub was sworn in from home for a new term, having won re-election in March. Also sworn-in from his home was Commissioner Carlos Diaz.  Commissioner Cliff Merz was appointed vice mayor for another term. 

Although the city had opened numerous ways for public comments, such as by e-mail, phone, or the “hand” raising function on Zoom, there were no public statements. 

City Manager Matt Spoor said there were a total of 70 people participating including the Commissioners and staff.  The next meeting is set for May 4. 

photo/Laura Kepner

Locals Virtually Teaching, Learning, and Graduating

in news/town square

Working from home, whether you’re a student, parent, teacher, or in some cases, both, is the norm these days. With the ongoing threat of COVID-19, there can only be guesswork as to when workers and students may return to a normal schedule . . . and environment.

Amy Stinsman teaches second grade at Safety Harbor Elementary. In a recent phone interview, she explained that she and her students had one week off for spring break. The following week became training for all Pinellas County teachers. They had to learn how to reach their students virtually. “The following Monday,” she said “we started gently: one lesson a day.”

Mrs. Stinsman said that there has been a big transition to the online technology. The whole process has been challenging for everyone. “But,” she said, “week by week we are all getting better – students, parents, and teachers.”

She appreciates how smooth this transition has actually been. “I am super proud of the county’s reaction to implementing virtual school so swiftly. It was a huge endeavor and the leadership at the county level has been phenomenal. I am grateful that we get to keep in contact with our students and give them some sort of normalcy.”

Some of the technical challenges have been due to a sluggish system, mainly on Microsoft Teams because of too many users. “Everyone is being very patient,” Mrs. Stinsman explained. “Our principal has not overwhelmed us. She has been wonderful and being supportive of what we are doing. I think [the pandemic] has brought more tolerance in the world and more patience.

“Right now, it is less is more because in these difficult times teachers are trying to understand that parents have a lot more to do. Teachers are trying to not overwhelm them. So far, we have gotten positive feedback.

While Safety Harbor is made up of many affluent families, there are also families who are struggling, especially now. Safety Harbor Elementary reacted quickly and provided computers for all kids who did not have them at home. Spectrum has given wifi to families who don’t have it.

Mrs. Stinsman and her coworkers are continuing to teach themselves. “It is confusing and there is a learning curve. I have been behind my computer at least eight hours a day, past my contractual hours and I feel ninety-percent of teachers are. Teachers are typically perfectionists and we are all trying to master this. As long as the kids are learning, that is what is important.”

On Saturday, Governor Ron DeSantis announced that Florida schools K-12 will remain closed through the end of this school year. Mrs. Stinsman said she thinks it is smart and will help keep children, parents, and teachers healthy and safe.  “I signed a petition for Ron DeSantis to keep the schools closed. I hope it helped.”

Kara Tanner‘s two daughters are students at Safety Harbor Elementary. She explained that she feels fortunate because she is a stay-at-home mom so she is used to having her kids at home with her when not in school. “But,” she said, “there are things at school that we can’t do – like socialization. And the girls listen to their teachers better than they do me.”

Mrs. Tanner has found ways to make online learning work best for her daughters. “We start later,” she said. “We will usually do recess first. I have a kindergartner. She will have a video to watch or her teacher will offer options. We have done things like cut our fruits and vegetables to see the seeds. Then she drew a picture of the seeds to compare and contrast. For math you can play a math game, like with Uno cards or you can go on the computer and do thirty minutes of math there. Sometimes I don’t have time to play a math game. My other daughter is more independent. She is in third grade. They recently went on a virtual field trip to a national park.”

But for the Tanners, there is an unavoidable downside to the stay-at-home school experience. “They miss their teachers so much, and friends of course. It is a different environment at home. At first they didn’t think they’d have to work.”

The Tanners hadn’t planned on sending their girls back to school this year anyway, even though it is now official. “My husband is very high risk, so we have to be extra careful,” Mrs. Tanner said.

Sophie Goldsmith is a senior at Palm Harbor University High School and plans to attend Amherst College this fall.  Like all Florida seniors, she recently learned she will not return to high school at all this year.

“My IB exams have been canceled. For weeks they were saying they weren’t going to cancel. It is a big deal . . .  the two-year program has never been canceled,” she said.  “Grad Bash at Universal has been canceled. Prom has been canceled. But I am healthy. We are doing our part and staying home.”

Sophie describes herself as an in-person learner.  “It is definitely tough to find motivation for how to do it all at home. I have a new respect for my dad, who telecommutes.

“I have had a lot of time to think about graduation,” she said. “I feel like graduation is pretty impersonal anyway. But a lot of people peak in high school so this is hard for them. It was going to be on a Saturday at 7 a.m. and that would have been a nightmare. It is what it is. I will be okay.”

Sophie hopes to study molecular biology.  “I also want to study history and a foreign language. I want to study abroad. I feel like the world is my oyster.”

Sophie misses her friends and teachers. “I miss having conversations and learning from people. We are not allowed to turn on our cameras. We have to turn on mute. I am still in touch with my friends. At lunch we do the New York Times Crossword so we still facetime and do all that but I miss learning with people—how they think and view materials.”

She has had time to focus on reading, though. “I haven’t read for fun in a really long time. I spend an hour in my driveway reading a book. I put on big sunglasses and look like one of the Three Blind Mice. It is really nice to see my neighbors. I haven’t seen some of them in years. It is neat. I like that a lot. I have been really trying to get outside even though it’s hot.”

When asked how she feels about the decision to close schools through the remainder of the school year, she replied, “I’m just bummed about everything getting canceled. Graduation is virtual now, whatever that means.”

What is your experience with COVID-19? If you have a story to share, please contact Laura Kepner at newsroom@SafetyHarborSun.com

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