County and city declare states of emergency over COVID-19

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  • The Florida Department of Health's COVID-19 dashboard as of Thursday evening.
    The Florida Department of Health's COVID-19 dashboard as of Thursday evening.
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Despite a reluctance earlier in the week to declare a state of emergency, given that the state and federal government have already done so, the Nassau County Board of County Commissioners approved at Wednesday’s meeting a state of emergency for seven days, giving the county manager and his designees authority to immediately address situations arising from novel coronavirus infections or any more cases of COVID-19. The county’s state of emergency is renewable on a week-to-week basis. The city of Fernandina Beach declared its own state of emergency is in effect as of 1 p.m. Thursday.

As of Thursday at 11 a.m. the state’s COVID-19 Data and Surveillance Dashboard still showed one confirmed case of COVID-19 in Nassau County, but the number of cases in Duval County had risen to 15. The last information that the Florida Department of Health distributed on the one case here said it was travel-related. The man was not treated at Baptist Medical Center Nassau and was self-isolating at home.

Following a review of a 300-page auditor’s report giving the county the highest possible rating in Fiscal Year 2019 for “good stewardship of funds,” the BOCC considered the negative impact coronavirus infection precautions will have on projected county revenues.

With everyone in the room seated six feet apart in accordance with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, the board proceeded with an agenda modified to minimize the need for citizens to attend. Citizens watching proceedings online were advised to send an email to contact@nassaucountyfl.com in order to have their questions or comments brought to the attention of the board during the meeting and recorded in the minutes.

The sparsely attended meeting began with an update from public health and emergency staff.

Eugenia Ngo-Seidel, M.D., director of the Florida Department of Health – Nassau County, advised Wednesday there was still only one person in the county who has been diagnosed with COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, but as the number of cases in other parts of the state continues to rise, she expects there will be more cases here.

“Right now, there are a lot of frustrations with testing availability,” Ngo-Seidel noted. “We are hoping that will get better.”

The health department is reaching out to area nursing homes for priority testing, Ngo-Seidel said, but there are currently no plans in place to create drive-thru testing sites in Nassau County given the county’s current status.

Ngo-Seidel said masks, gloves, and other protective wear for health care providers are still in short supply, but added that the shortages are now being addressed at the national level. She advised the public to avoid rumors and misinformation about the virus.

Greg Foster, director of Emergency Management, advised that his department has ramped up to Level Two in staffing, with many in his department working from home. Since the levels of emergency preparedness typically apply to hurricane events here, they are less meaningful to the general public under the circumstances of a public health emergency. 

Foster’s department is coordinating all information to the public about COVID-19 through the Emergency Management Department’s “One Nassau” messaging initiative.

Readers can get the latest information posted by Emergency Management by going to http://www.nassaucountyfl.com/370/Emergency-Management, or to their page on Facebook.

Auditor Ron Whitesides of Purvis, Gray & Company reviewed audit results for Fiscal Year 2019 with the board via telephone conference call. He summarized the 300-page report with his conclusion: “It is my unmodified opinion that the county’s financial statement is fairly presented. … I find the county to be in a healthy financial condition with $2.7 million in reserves which is within a recommended balance.”

Whitesides’ report also included audits of federal and state grants related to hurricane assistance and highway construction provided to the county and found the “county good stewards of those funds.” He stated he had given the county the highest financial rating available.

He noted one human error during the audit and recommended changes in “process and controls” to prevent the situation from recurring. Those procedures are now in place.

The auditor also identified delays in rescue billing for ambulance services. Michael Mullin, county manager and attorney, responded that the delays were the result of a staffing problem and the solution has been to separate utility billing and rescue billing to different locations, a practice already implemented.

Megan Diehl, director of the Office of Management & Budget, shared a memo she sent to all department heads in response to anticipated shortfalls in revenues related to the COVID-19 crisis.

“Obviously there are going to be some short-term implications for your budget,” Diehl told the board. “As you all know, the Shrimp Festival has been closed, tourism is way down, and there are fewer cars on the road, so that’s going to have an immediate effect on sales tax collection, gas tax collection and, of course, tourist development tax collection. … I want everyone here and out in the public to know we are aware of the short-term implications and we are going to do our best to monitor the situation and bring you options … on how to make material reductions and hopefully minimize the impact on projects.”

Among the county’s strategies are leveraging all grant opportunities, seeking the most efficient ways of using existing personnel, reviewing department fee schedules annually, and discouraging mid-year budget increase requests for personnel and equipment. As for the possible long-term budget implications, all agreed it is currently impossible to predict given the current “unchartered territory.”

Commissioner Pat Edwards cautioned, “I own a business, and business will be down because we won’t have as many customers. I think we have to look at this from a government standpoint. We did this once before in 2005, 2006 and 2007, and we stopped hiring and we let everybody go, and then we found that people were still moving into Nassau County and the need for services grew exponentially. While business was struggling our government was struggling because we didn’t manage funds properly and we weren’t taking into (consideration that) more people require more services. … Business is business and government is government.”

But what Edwards did not specifically address is that citizens expect more from their government in a time of crisis. An example is the board’s approval last week of $50,000 in emergency funds for the Nassau County Council on Aging in order to increase home meals and shopping for the elderly.

Commissioners expressed disappointment that a plan to relocate the old wave attenuator from the city of Fernandina Beach marina to the Dee Dee Bartels Boat Ramp would cost more than $250,000. The contractor who owns the attenuator is willing to sell it to the county for that amount, but the county had originally expected it to be donated. Although no vote was taken on the matter, all agreed it would be a “no go” under theose circumstances, especially given the life expectancy of the attenuator.

Jodi Henson from the Small Business Development Center at the University of North Florida presented information on small business emergency bridge loans now available to for-profit businesses suffering losses related to the coronavirus outbreak. Details about the program were covered in the last edition of the News-Leader. Go to floridadisasterloan.org or call Henson at 530-6077 for more information.

She also advised a larger federal loan program is expected soon that will apply to not-for-profit organizations as well as small businesses. Details of that program were not yet available by press time.

The next meeting of the Nassau County BOCC is scheduled for 6 p.m. Monday, March 23, in commission chambers. The same accommodations for coronavirus prevention will be in place for that meeting.

pbushnell@fbnewsleader.com