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PSJ summer youth programs to open

Tim Croft

Port St. Joe parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and guardians received a likely welcome reprieve from city commissioners Tuesday as they unanimously voted to open summer youth programs.

The program at the Washington Gym will begin Monday.

An opening date for the STAC House was unclear as the city must still hire additional employees and secure the infrared thermometers needed to check temperatures each day and sufficient cleaning supplies.

“I came here leaning 60/40 to keep the programs closed,” said Mayor Rex Buzzett. “But I have heard some good points.

“We still have the option of shutting it down if it gets out of hand.”

The programs, at the STAC House on Eighth Street and the Washington Gym, have been shuttered due to the COVID-19 pandemic and concerns about social distancing among children.

CareerSource Gulf Coast, which leases the Washington Gym from the city, announced last month it had cancelled its summer program.

However, as restrictions have been eased from the federal government down, commissioners asked CareerSource Gulf Coast and city staff to arrive at plans for opening both facilities.

Those plans include checking each child’s temperature upon arriving each day, a steady rotation of hand sanitizing and cleaning and, most importantly, limits on the number of children indoors at any one time of the day.

Both programs will also have limits on the number of children who can be present at any one time.

“I support opening the summer programs with limits on indoor activities,” said Commissioner David Ashbrook. “I think we also need to remember that these programs offer many kids the only real meal they will get that day.”

In addition to restrictions adhering to CDC guidelines, the city-operated program at the STAC House will be open only to Gulf County students.

If a cousin is visiting from out-of-town, as an example, the visiting relative will not be allowed entry.

Commissioner Eric Langston said many residents, including children, were already doing what they wanted, regardless of phases or guidelines, and that opening the summer programs would at least provide structure.

Since schools closed in March, there has been little in the way of structure beyond households.

“I know what parents are going through right now,” said Commissioner Brett Lowry, who is paying child care to enable both parents to work.

Commissioner Scott Hoffman who has championed opening the programs as soon as safe, added, “There are too many kids and families that are impacted by this.”

Buzzett initiated the discussion on summer programs, reflecting his sentiment entering the meeting, by saying it was going on his “soapbox” for a few minutes.

He expressed concern over the growing number of positive COVID-19 cases in the county and whether re-opening might be moving a bit fast.

“I am real concerned we are not doing what we need to do in the city,” Buzzett said.

“I would love to see people be a little more responsible for themselves and their neighbors and everyone. We’ve got to take this seriously and I am not sure we are.”

Buzzett said everywhere he goes about the city few are wearing masks, whether at the grocery stores or restaurants.

He alluded to a conversation with a visitor who lauded the progress made since Hurricane Michael while expressing shock none of the wait staff at the restaurant they patronized for lunch were wearing masks.

Sarah Hinds, Administrator of the Florida Department of Health in Gulf County said the department remains focused on social distancing with recommendations of wearing a cloth mask in the event distancing is not possible.

The department, she added, had provided 20,000 cloth masks to county residents and has also ramped up testing as part of a statewide initiative.

Hinds also noted that the uptick in cases were significantly driven by those who have traveled out or in to the county

“We want to make sure we are testing,” Hinds said, noting that despite a steady increase in positive cases the county is still reporting the second-lowest number of positive cases in Florida.

She said the biggest challenge to opening the summer programs was going to be distancing.

“It will be difficult to practice social distancing,” Hinds said. “Social distancing will be your biggest challenge.”

Commissioners said city staff would work closely with the FDOH-Gulf to refine the plan for the STAC House.