Fernandina restaurants close for cleaning after positive tests


As Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis told a news conference Monday, the number of people in the state testing positive for COVID-19 is accelerating too fast to be attributed simply to more testing. “There’s evidence that there’s transmission within those communities,” DeSantis admitted.

And the community of Nassau County appears to be one of those communities experiencing spread.

As of 11 a.m. Tuesday, June 23, a message posted on Facebook by Nassau County Emergency Management said there were 126 total cases for the county – 118 residents and eight non-residents – a number that has doubled since the middle of May.

“The Health Department is conducting case investigation and contact tracing on these cases,” the post says. “ The individuals will remain in isolation until released by public health.”

The latest official numbers released Tuesday morning came after news last week that seven employees had testing positive at Lynch’s Irish Pub in Jacksonville Beach and some customers also said they tested positive after going there. This week, three Fernandina Beach restaurants closed temporarily for special cleaning, two of them after staff members tested positive.

“This afternoon we have been notified of an employee testing positive for COVID-19,” according to a Facebook post Monday on Amelia Tavern’s page. “After learning of the positive cases during their visit to Jax Beach, this individual took the precaution of staying home from work. While they have not been in the building for 8 days, we are taking extreme precaution and closing to conduct a deep clean and allow other team members to be tested.” The post adds the tavern intends to reopen at 11 a.m. today with these guidelines in place: employee screening and temperature check upon arrival; masks required of employees upon entry and while working; no items left on tables between seatings; sanitizing of tables, chairs, menus, etc. between seatings; and hourly “touch point” sanitation of front doors, coolers, bar tap handles, restrooms, phones, iPad point of sale systems, and all commonly touched areas.

The post says social distancing and occupancy guidelines will also be in place.

“We want to assure you that we will continue taking these precautions and many more. Thank you for your understanding throughout this time & we appreciate your continued support,” the post concludes.

The Sandbar & Kitchen closed Sunday after a manager notified customers an employee had fallen ill. “Unfortunately, we have been notified that an employee has tested positive for COVID-19,” their Facebook post says. “This employee has not been in the building for 6 days but we want to take precautions. We are doing our part to keep all our staff and patrons safe. Thank you everyone for understanding and support during this difficult time.” The post also said the restaurant will perform “thorough sanitation and employee testing.” Another post said the restaurant would reopen on Thursday.

A message from T-Ray’s Burger Station was similar, but even more cautious. An employee had been “in direct contact with a person testing positive for COVID-19,” the restaurant’s Facebook post says. “Upon learning this information, we have closed and began sanitizing the entire restaurant along with having all employees tested as a precaution to keep our employees and customers safe. We will remain closed until all employee test results are back and the restaurant has been thoroughly sanitized.”

On Saturday, the public information officer of the Nassau County Emergency Operations Center sent out a news release that says the Florida Department of Health – Nassau County “strongly encourages” young adults to “take protective measures” such as wearing masks, adhering to social distancing guidelines, and being tested:

“This is due to the increase in positive tests among the younger population across the state. Many present as asymptomatic without signs or symptoms of COVID-19 and can spread the infection to others unknowingly.

“Community members are encouraged to work together to minimize exposure in Nassau County by using cloth masks when in public indoor spaces.  Residents who need a cloth mask can contact the Health Department.

“Testing of high-risk individuals who are ill is conducted at the Health Department’s clinics. For more information on DOH-Nassau’s Expanded Specimen Collection for COVID-19 Testing, please call 904-875-6100 or visit http://Nassau.FloridaHealth.gov/.”

The News-Leader asked to interview Dr. Eugenia Ngo-Seidel, the director of the Florida Department of Health – Nassau County, about whether she was concerned about the low rates of transmission starting to break down, but the newspaper was referred to state officials instead.

“Because COVID-19 is a global pandemic, the central Department of Health office has taken the lead in assuring aligned messaging throughout all Florida counties. It is important that we do not send mixed messaging to the public because of the rapidly changing situation. If this was an event that was only occurring in Nassau, our communications would come directly from our local agency. Our commitment to providing consistent messaging to the public prevents us from providing an in-person media interview at this time. Some of the topics that we discussed on Wednesday would be considered a commentary or opinion that could come from State DOH level. We could forward your questions to our Office of Communications if you would like us to do so. FDOH Nassau will continue to provide unified messaging with our State Health Office, our local Emergency Operations Center and One Nassau, on topics such as case updates, infection control guidance, and safety measures community members can take,” an email from Valerie Eldridge-Bratsch, the department’s Healthy Start program manager, said in response to an email sent to Ngo-Seidel.

The News-Leader was told something similar in an email from Eldridge-Bratsch in April after asking for comments from Ngo-Seidel: “The Florida Department of Health is coordinating all messaging through the State office as a part of the unified response to COVID. The Office of Communications and Dr. Seidel approve all messaging. FDOH Nassau County Health Department also coordinates with the local Nassau County Emergency Management Joint Information Center to maintain clear, factual, and consistent messaging to the public.”