Gulfport Emphasizing Strategic Decisions on COVID-19

After the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a pandemic on Wednesday, March 11, what followed was a buying frenzy that put a strain on supplies at area supermarkets for food, paper goods and hand sanitizers. Hoarding by some consumers triggered stores like Publix in St. Petersburg to enforce buying limits. One such shelf sign read, in part, “Because of increased demand, customers are limited to two of each item. Thank you for understanding.”

Fluid.”

Beginning Friday, March 13, this is the way Gulfport City Manager Jim O’Reilly described being nimble regarding the local strategic decision-making process that is now in place during the unique worldwide public health crisis known as 2019 Novel Coronavirus or COVID-19.

In response to COVID-19 issues in other countries including China, the World Health Organization declared the virus a pandemic on Wednesday, March 11.

Since then, the emphasis in Gulfport has been focused on ensuring public safety, said O’Reilly. The city’s protocol during emergencies is to follow the lead of the county and they in turn look to the governor for leadership. Frequent conference calls facilitate collaboration.

But, a pandemic of this magnitude has no template to follow like annual hurricanes, he said.

In the first wave of municipal-level actions that began on March 13, all events sponsored by the city or events supported with city services like police and fire were canceled in cooperation with many community partners like the Gulfport Merchants Chamber (GMC), he said.

The evening before, on March 12, GMC President Barbara Banno said in a written statement, “While we love our visitors, we don’t want to put you at risk, either. We’ve made the difficult decision to cancel events. Is this an abundance of caution? Of course. We value the health and well-being of our neighbors, friends, and visitors and feel that taking these social distancing measures will aid in preventing the potential spread of the virus within our community.

“We believe this is the right thing to do.”

Examples of canceled events include the Gulfport Third Saturday Art & Gallery Walk on March 21 along with First Friday Art & Gallery Walk on April 3 in addition to Tuesday Fresh Markets on March 17, March 24, March 31 and April 7.

Concurrently, the Pinellas County Schools (PCS) canceled school from the beginning of Spring Break Week on Monday, March 16 through April 15.

Further, their measures included distributing lunch and breakfast meals to students. From Monday, March 23 through Friday, March 27, PCS has made provisions to distribute “grab and go” meals for free to anyone 18 years of age or younger at schools located at key points throughout the county. One close to Gulfport is John Hopkins Middle School, 701 16th St. S., St. Petersburg with serving times from 10:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. For more details about all locations, visit pcsb.org/cms/lib/FL01903687/Centricity/Domain/11436/school-meals-during-closure-2020-2.pdf.

In spite of these measures to encourage people to stay home to curb the spread of the virus, many were still gathering in Gulfport to play volleyball on the beach or to eat, drink and listen to live music in restaurants and bars.

St. Paddy’s Day Revelry

Normally, a street party on a closed section of Shore Boulevard in Gulfport between the Casino and Williams Pier accompanies the Irish-themed holiday atmosphere at O’Maddy’s Bar & Grille, Salty’s Gulfport Bar and Caddy’s. This annual street tradition was also one of the early cancelations because it was on public property. In response, businesses made plans to move the partygoers inside their establishments and onto their respective sidewalk areas.

To replace the traditional gathering on a public street, a pop-up party with live music was then planned by one of the business owners in the Village Courtyard area, which is private property located adjacent to Beach Boulevard and 29th Avenue South.

Frequent Press Conferences Trigger Quick Changes

As more details about the pandemic unfolded, government officials at the national, state and regional levels began holding frequent press conferences.

By Monday, March 16, President Donald Trump and members of his coronavirus task force released his 15-day plan that built onto what the national-level Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) was already doing. It was designed to slow the spread of the virus. 

The main theme was: stay home. Trump said, “We’ll see what happens after that.” See the full document HERE.

The city’s second wave of action steps took the new directives into consideration and began with the publication of seven press releases on the municipal website at mygulfport.us/covid-19/. Examples included the closure of the Senior Center and the Recreation Center. 

By late morning on Tuesday, March 17 when the 2020 Presidential Primary and Municipal Elections were already taking place and gatherings associated with St. Paddy’s Day celebrations were getting underway, an Executive Order 20-68 from Florida Governor Ron DeSantis was released and detailed even more restrictions involving the serving of alcoholic beverages and the closure of bars and nightclubs.

As a result, Gulfport city officials took immediate action by announcing the following five-point plan:

1. Bars must close by 5 p.m. on Tuesday, March 17 for 30 days.
2. Restaurants must immediately reduce/limit their occupancy to 50 percent of current building occupancy.
3. Restaurants must limit parties to 10 individuals with a six-foot separation between any groups of patrons.
4. Effective, March 18 in Pinellas County, all restaurants must discontinue the sale of alcohol at 10 p.m.
5. Restaurants must implement the screening of all restaurant employees.

On Wednesday, March 18 at noon, the city announced the closure of the municipal library. A press release detailed that employees will still be on hand Monday-Friday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. to answer reference questions by phone at 727 893-1073. To resolve any circulation issues, call 727-893-1074.

On March 18, the city also released a statement saying “all Cultural Facilities and City Sponsored Special Events are cancelled until a re-evaluation can take place on or about April 15.

Boat Races

On Friday, March 13 in an exclusive interview with the Gabber, O’Reilly said that the annual 2020 Grand Prix boat show and races have been canceled. The event had been scheduled for March 27 though 29.

What’s Next

Gulfport has no current plans to regulate gatherings that take place on private property, O’Reilly told the Gabber on Tuesday, March 17.

“But,” he said, “everything is subject to review.” 

Essential COVID-19 Resources

• City of Gulfport: mygulfport.us/covid-19/

• City of St. Petersburg: stpete.org/emergency/covid-19.php

• Pinellas County: pinellascounty.org/emergency/covid19/

• State of Florida: floridahealth.gov/diseases-and-conditions/COVID-19/

• Florida Department of Health interactive online map for coronavirus statistics: fdoh.maps.arcgis.com/apps/opsdashboard/index.html?fbclid=IwAR1Unh4hanh0TT6nXt2J4a5145d7SfxFvQCqDeDnm1ZjrwWeTgTYkA6y5F0#/8d0de33f260d444c852a615dc7837c86

• Centers for Disease Control (U.S.): cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/index.html

• Johns Hopkins University – U.S. national and world statistics in various formats including an interactive map: coronavirus.jhu.edu/map.html?fbclid=IwAR1dJKcc6CPhMsA9Psfnv-6XAraPiVgujxj7bWaBCocsVzJs4pFwqgYqnsI

• World Health Organization: who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019

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