Coronavirus Pandemic: St. Lucie on emergency footing

St. Lucie County commissioners declared a local state of emergency Tuesday (March 17) to combat the spread of the coronavirus and advised residents to plan for minimal contact with others for weeks.

“Fortunately, as of today, there have been no COVID-19 cases in St. Lucie County,” County Administrator Howard Tipton said. “This is highly likely to change.”

Anyone who shows symptoms of coronavirus or feels sick should call their physician, county Health Department Administrator Clint Sperber advised Tuesday. The doctor would determine if a test is needed.

“As testing expands, we will expect to see cases,” Sperber said Tuesday during an emergency news conference at the county Administrative Center called by governmental and public safety leaders.

“The single most effective intervention to stop the spread COVID-19 will be vaccination,” Sperber said. “However, we do not have the vaccine available today to stop the spread of disease, or medicine to treat anyone with symptoms.”

Cleveland Clinic Tradition Hospital is offering free drive-through coronavirus testing starting Friday, March 20, for patients presenting symptoms and referred by a physician. “The testing is key to identifying where the virus is,” Tipton said.

St. Lucie County planned to activate the Emergency Operations Center Wednesday morning, March 18, to help city, county, state, nonprofit and private sector agencies coordinate their responses to the corona virus pandemic.

Extra precautions will be taken to limit access to the EOC and minimize opportunities for contamination to protect the 911 dispatchers who work in the building around the clock, Tipton said.

“These are unusual times,” Tipton said. “This only becomes more serious as we go through these coming weeks.”

Encouraging residents to steadfastly guard against the transmission of the virus is at the heart of St. Lucie County’s pandemic strategy, officials said.

“It’s just keeping your distance, keeping out of any large group activities,” Tipton said. “Everything we’re doing is designed to slow the spread. It’s just critical.

“What we’re seeing in Europe right now, especially in Italy, is the lack of that initial response allows there to be a spike that overwhelms the healthcare system,” Tipton said. “That’s what we’re trying to avoid.

“There is no treatment for this and there is no vaccine,” Tipton said. “If we can slow the spread and our healthcare system is able to deal with everyone who needs treatment, that’s what all of these efforts are designed to do. To buy us time so we can slow the spread of this disease.”

Residents should travel only for essential needs, such as food and medicine, Tipton said. Working from home is encouraged.

Meanwhile, polls opened 7 a.m. Tuesday for the presidential preference primary, but with fewer workers than usual because dozens declined to participate out of fear of the coronavirus, said St. Lucie County Supervisor of Elections Gertrude Walker.

“We’re wiping down the booths, we’re wiping down the pens, we’re trying to do all we can to ensure the safety of everyone through this election process,” Walker said.

Otherwise, public activities wound down across St. Lucie County with the Port St. Lucie City Council canceling its meeting Monday (March 16), public schools closing Friday (March 13) for at least two weeks, and the New York Mets spring training being called off Thursday (March 12).

The 19th Judicial Circuit suspended all jury trials for the next two weeks, Tipton said.

The Port St. Lucie City Council called an emergency meeting for Tuesday evening to declare a local state of emergency. Fort Pierce also declared a local state of emergency Tuesday, Mayor Linda Hudson said.

The city and county emergency declarations give government administrators greater spending power and the authority to restrict public activity.

Pete Tesch, CEO of the Economic Development Council of St. Lucie County, urged small business owners to participate in the state’s Business Damage Assessment Survey.

The information will be used to help Gov. Ron DeSantis and the state government formulate programs to aid businesses harmed by the coronavirus.

St. Lucie’s small business owners can also call the EDC offices at 772-336-6250 for information about tapping emergency programs, Tesch told county commissioners.

County beaches and parks will remain open until further notice, but the libraries will soon close, Tipton said.

Also closed are the Havert Fenn Center, National Navy UDT-Seal Museum, county Aquarium, Regional History Center and Oxbow Eco-Center.

Port St. Lucie Police Chief John Bolduc said patrol officers would be on the lookout for bars and nightclubs that remain open after 5 p.m. Tuesday in violation of an order issued Monday by DeSantis shutting them down for 30 days.

The governor ordered restaurants to allow patrons in no more than half their dining room to maintain social distancing.

Restaurants in St. Lucie West and Tradition started seeing a slowdown this week after the Mets left town, school children went on an extended spring break and vulnerable seniors opted to stay home.

“It’s a little slower than we’re used to, especially during lunch,” said Gabbi Krystynak, manager of Panera Bread in St. Lucie West. “I think people are kind of distancing themselves from going out.”

“Our catering is kind of busy and so is our rapid pickup,” Krystynak said. “It’s mostly people are ordering online and just coming in and grabbing and going.”

Sara Cirone, the owner of the Tropical Smoothie Café in St. Lucie West, said business slowed down Monday as fewer people visited the plaza, but she anticipated a steady flow of takeout and delivery orders.

“Until they tell us otherwise, we’re still open as normal,” Cirone said. “We might have a financial burden for the next month or two, who knows, but Tropical Smoothie as a brand isn’t going to go anywhere.

“The majority of our clientele are grab and go,” Cirone said. “We’re pretty quick. We’ve kind of got it down to a science.”

Among the online delivery services being used by St. Lucie West and Tradition restaurants are Door Dash, Uber Eats, Bite Squad, Grub Hub and E-Z Cater.

Nick Estrada, the owner of 3 Natives Acai and Juicery in Tradition Square, said his takeout and delivery business has picked up as a result of the pandemic.

“We serve healthy foods,” Estrada said. “We need to keep people nourished. We serve juices and gingers. Ginger is supposed to be really good for your immune system.”

Residents continued stocking up on cleaning supplies, food and water to prepare for the possibility the government eventually orders people to stay home for two weeks or more.

Mike Valdez, a retired federal law enforcement officer, said he bought house cleaning detergent Monday at Publix in Tradition to finish cleaning his home.

“I think it’s real,” Valdez said about the pandemic. “I’m going to start hunkering down and start watching the movie channel. I think everybody needs to stay home.”

Meanwhile, New York Mets fans were conspicuous in their absence from Clover Park in St. Lucie West as workers completed the construction of a $57 million renovation on the empty stadium.

St. Lucie County and Port St. Lucie urged residents to conduct their business with local governments online, including paying utility bills, or obtaining building permits and asking questions.

Port St. Lucie shut down most programs and events at the MIDFLORIDA Credit Union Center, including weddings and meetings, starting Wednesday (March 18) and continuing through at least March 30.

City Hall, the Community Center, Robert E. Minsky Gym and the Saints Golf Course were still operating normal daytime hours as of Tuesday (March 17), but scheduled activities were suspended.

City run sports leagues were also suspended and park events were canceled.

The St. Lucie County Chamber of Commerce canceled all its events through May 8 and all its meetings through April 10. The chamber also closed the office at the Seven Gables House through April 3 to the public and cutback work hours.

St. Lucie Public Schools Child Nutrition Services started serving meals for students Monday (March 16) at Chester A. Moore Elementary, Fort Pierce, and Northport K-8 and Treasure Coast High School, both in Port St. Lucie. The meals are prepared, bagged and brought to the bus loop area so parents can drive through for pick-up.

The Boys and Girls Club of St. Lucie County is also working with the Treasure Coast Food Bank to provide meals to food-insecure families, said CEO Will Armstead.

Essential services such as public safety, trash collection, water and sewer service will continue for the foreseeable future, county and city official said.

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