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Private rental of city structures remains unresolved

Mike Cazalas
The Star

PORT ST. JOE — With a COVID-19 positivity rate running nearly twice the state’s target range, city commissioners continue to struggle on how to define when its facilities are safe for private functions like weddings.

Commissioners at two meetings so far this month have attempted, and failed, to come up with an answer acceptable enough to draw a motion but asked for it to be on the agenda for the Tuesday, Feb. 2 meeting in hopes of establishing guidelines that will both make the popular sites available when it’s safe but also make it clear when they’ll be closed.

The Centennial Building is a favored wedding place for couples like Connor and Megan Santo, who held their reception there last summer. Photo by Kiersten Stevenson Photography.

“We need to make a decision on our buildings and then we can make a decision on our outdoor events,” Mayor Rex Buzzett said at the city’s last meeting, referring to what positivity rate should trigger closures. “I think what we decided to do was put an addendum on our application process that if the positivity rate was ‘X’ percent the two weeks prior to that event, then we wouldn’t be able to let them have it.”

In addition to his historical value, the Centennial Building has plenty of room for large gatherings. Photo by Kiersten Stevenson Photography

The stumbling block for commissioners wasn’t whether it is prudent to disallow bookings or even cancel events if the positivity rate gets too high, it was deciding what that positivity rate should be and how to make sure people making bookings are aware it could be canceled.

A Florida Department of Health chart shows Gulf County's positivity rate holding between 17 and 22 percent in January. Florida Department of Health.

The city closed its facilities to bookings early this month when the positivity rate for COVID-19 testing passed 20 percent. A few already scheduled events – two weddings and a party – were allowed to continue but no new bookings have been allowed since.

Gulf County had recorded 1,616 cases of COVID-19 as of Jan. 24, with 32 deaths.

Buzzett suggested that 10 percent, the state’s target range and the number mentioned by the Gulf County Health Department, be the rate that would trigger cancellations.

That initially seemed favorable to Commissioner Scott Hoffman.

“I have said for the last year I am not going to take recommendations and experts off of social media … and I’m going to follow the guidance from the CDC, the state health department and our local county health department, and I would still support that idea,” he said. “I’m not crazy about 10 percent, I’d have rather picked something higher, but I’m not going to go back on what I’ve been saying for months.”

The biggest voice of dissent, though, came from Commissioner Brett Lowry, who pointed out the 10 percent “target” rate is just that – a target.

“I don’t think it gave us any kind of recommendation on closing buildings or anything like that,” he said.

As Buzzett continued his search for a motion, Hoffman said Lowry’s point made sense and maybe a 10 percent positivity rate was too low for the city to use.

“The way you explained, I agree it may not be just like, hey, you guys close everything at 10 percent,” he said. “I still think we could at a higher percentage and still be following the direction of the local health department.

“If we closed at 15 percent at least we’d be moving toward getting it to 10 percent because right now we’re at 19 percent. We were at 20.”

Commissioners agreed they have to resolve the issue because of the popularity of the facilities and some major events on the horizon – like Mardi Gras next month, a festival in March and prom in April.

“So does anybody want to make a motion, throw out a percentage, like make that an addendum to our application process?” Buzzett against asked. “I mean, 15 percent is not far from 19 to tell you the truth so we can bet it around, we can go in-between it, we can say 12, but I do think we need to do one or the other. Either not do anything or we need to have a percentage to help our city staff tell people that’s what we’re planning.”

No motion was forthcoming.

“I’ll say this: I’m not going to make a motion right now,” said Lowry. “I’m just not comfortable with a number right now. Just because I feel like there’s a possibility we might backtrack, because of what we might hear from the public.”

At that point Buzzett put it to rest for the day with commissioners agreeing to take it back up at the Feb. 2 meeting when they’ve had time for more input.