Citrus County commissioners on Thursday sought to reassure the public that they’re on top of the coronavirus emergency and there is no reason now to consider a stay-at-home order.
Commissioners, meeting in a nearly empty courthouse chambers with every other row of seats roped off to ensure social distancing, said their best advice is to follow direction from experts.
“This is not a time for local leaders to hide,” Commissioner Ron Kitchen Jr. said. “I ask people to stay calm, stay cool.”
The board met for the first time since declaring a local state of emergency March 9. The public was urged to stay away, watch on TV or the online, and participate during public comment via email or calling in by phone. A few people did.
Commissioners met even as Citrus recorded its first coronavirus-related death, an 80-year-old man who died Wednesday. Citrus has 11 confirmed cases of COVID-19, including the deceased man, according to the Florida Department of Health.
Commissioner Jeff Kinnard said the county should continue to urge caution.
“Given time, those numbers are going to go up everywhere,” he said.
Citrus County Health Director Ernesto “Tito” Rubio said one key is ensuring proper information is provided to the public.
“We have confusion in our communities and we have fear in our communities,” he told commissioners.
Rubio said the other is social distancing — 6 feet apart at least. That will slow the rate of spreading the virus.
“What we need to do is break this chain,” he said. “The way to break this chain is to distance ourselves.”
Coincidentally, commissioners sat in their usual seats on the dais, not following the 6-foot separation recommendation. County Administrator Randy Oliver was in his usual spot at a desk alongside the board and County Attorney Denise Dymond Lyn, who normally sits next to Oliver, took a position in the back of the room.
Board Chairman Brian Coleman said after the meeting that there was plenty of hand sanitizer available to commissioners.
“We tried to separate best we could,” he said.
Coleman raised the issue of a stay-at-home order. He said he didn’t think it was necessary now, but wanted to gauge opinions from commissioners about what circumstances they would support such an order.
Commissioner Scott Carnahan said he opposed a stay-at-home order, and Kitchen said the order would be unenforceable.
“Are we going to arrest people ... for leaving their homes?” Kitchen asked. “If you want to stay at home, stay at home.”
Rubio agreed, but said states and counties that have issued shelter-at-home orders did so after the public continued to congregate in groups larger than 10 even after other restrictions were in place.
“The enforcement is impossible,” he said. “We have to rely on our citizens to do the right thing.”
Kinnard, a chiropractor who closed his office due to the COVID-19 outbreak, said issuing a stay-at-home order would be a “huge step” for the board.
“I don’t like the stay-at-home order,” he said. “Hopefully enough people will do the right thing and we don’t have to consider that.”
Kitchen compared the coronavirus emergency to a hurricane, where the public is warned beforehand and then can take measures to protect itself.
Sheriff’s Capt. David DeCarlo, director of the Citrus County Emergency Operations Center, said the comparison doesn’t work.
“This is not at all like a hurricane,” he said. “We don’t know how long this will last.”
Commissioner Jimmie T. Smith said he was disappointed to see the governor close all parks, particularly the Withlacoochee State Trail. He suggested the county ask DeSantis to make an exception for trails.
Smith said outside activity is healthy, especially in the coronavirus environment.
“Not necessarily outside together, but outside,” he said.
Coleman said he’s seen groups congregate on the trail.
“If people follow simple rules, they’ll get past it,” he said.
During the public comment period, Frank Savino of Hernando called in asking if the boat ramps would remain open.
“I’m an avid fisherman,” he said.
Oliver and commissioners said they were committed to keeping the ramps open as long as they can.
“People are looking for things to do and that’s probably one of the safer ones,” Oliver said.
Savino said he was happy to hear that.
“I don’t go to socialize at the boat ramp,” he said, “and I don’t think anybody else does too.”