When will county commissioners return to their boardroom and begin again to hold formal public hearings? That was one question County Manager and Attorney Mike Mullin tried to answer Wednesday at a special meeting of the Nassau County Board of County Commissioners.
Mullin said it could be two, three, or four weeks before commissioners meet again in person depending on which phase Gov. Ron DeSantis says the state is in. Referencing the governor’s “Phase One” plan for the state addressing local government meetings, he said the “in-person quorum for a local government body to meet should remain suspended and the use of technology and video conferencing for local government meetings should be encouraged.” Adding that specific dates would be set by executive order, Mullin continued: “In Phase Two, the quorum by being in the boardroom would resume and restrict no more than 50 people in attendance as long as the social distancing guidelines can be maintained. ... To try to resume the quasi-judicial and legislative hearings that will accommodate members of the public who want to participate live, here in the boardroom, we are going to have to have a plan.”
Mullin said the restricted room occupancy for meetings is currently at 35 people, and a 50% occupancy of the room would be 60, so county staff envisions an outside area with tents, equipment and TVs. People could possibly be rotated in to speak, unless the IT department can figure out a way to do it from outside, he said.
“I suspect, given what’s backed up in the pipeline so to speak, (those meetings) will be lengthy, and the public deserves to be heard and we have to make every accommodation, and I know you would anyway, to accommodate that.”
Dr. Eugenia Ngo-Seidel, the director of the Florida Department of Health – Nassau County, updated the board on the latest COVID-19 testing data for the county, saying the case counts and positivity rates are both staying low.
“We are meeting the requirements so far as decreasing influenza-like illness and COVID-like illness, so those are all good signs,” Ngo-Seidel said, adding that they are now promoting testing. She referred to two “pop up” mobile sites in Hilliard and Callahan on Thursday that would provide free tests obtained from the Department of Emergency Management.
“We are averaging about 41 tests per day, and we would like to get up to about 55 tests per day across all the people to test, all the areas that test, so that we can sample about 2% of our population per month, and that would be a good metric to make sure we are finding the individuals who are infected with COVID and then following up with contact tracing and isolation.”
Emergency Management Director Greg Foster said his department is getting ready for the second of two county “Recovery Information Fairs.” While the first was held Wednesday, the second was held today from 9 a.m. until noon at Yulee Middle School, located at 85439 Miner Road. Several county offices were to provide limited services that have been otherwise unavailable to residents without access to online services during the pandemic. Call Nassau County Emergency Management at (904) 548-0900 for more information.
Foster also said he has started receiving N95 protective masks from the state and is sending those to first responders and others in need of those type of masks.
After extending the county’s state of emergency, which has to be done on a week-by-week basis, discussion turned to a review of how the county’s beach reopening went on May 1. Mullin said he went to the beach several times to check on the situation. Noting that county parking lots stayed full after reopening, and commenting on the board’s previous decision to temporarily prohibit commercial operations such as horseback riding, Mullin said he would recommend the board wait “at least another couple of weeks” before reconsidering it “because there is no room for parking those horse trailers.”
Mullin said an average horse trailer takes up seven spaces and imagined there being more than one needing accommodation. He added later that he could probably come up with a plan by next Wednesday to allow the horse riding operations to return to the beaches. Mullin was asked by Commissioner Thomas Ford to consider whether the trailers could be allowed to park on the grass at Peters Point.
Debbie Manser, owner of Amelia Island Horseback Riding, rose to tell commissioners her sunrise-catching riders would be off the beach by 10 a.m. in the morning and her sunset riders wouldn’t be back until 6 p.m., though those times will change as sunrise comes earlier and sunset comes later. Manser offered to contact the other two vendors in order to coordinate the potential plan, and Chairman Danny Leeper thanked her for the offer.
Mullin read a submitted question asking when parking on the county beach would resume, and offered that his staff would submit that plan to the board in about two weeks, and “which portions of the proposed ordinance we would ask you to address in advance of the public hearing that may not really take place until the end of June.”
Mullin also read a question asking if parking on the beach is restricted by the federal Endangered Species Act during turtle nesting season and how that affects the county.
Mullin said it is in effect, and restrictions on parking would apply daytime (before 8 a.m.) and nighttime, including no camping on the beach during the turtle season.
Mullin said Fort Clinch State Park would reopen Monday, May 11, but will not allow camping at first. Asked later where the information came from, Mullin said it came from Park Manager Heath Alboher, but Alboher would not confirm Mullin’s statement, saying by email, “At this point I do not have a date for the opening of Fort Clinch but will share as soon as I know. For the most up to date information please visit the website (at Floridastateparks.org).”
Mullin told the board that a reference in a “whereas clause” in the county’s Executive Order No. 6 stating 3.5% of the county’s population had tested positive for COVID-19 would be corrected to say 3.5% of the tests done to that point.
Individual commissioners also took the opportunity to extend their kudos to county leaders including Sheriff Bill Leeper and Public Works Director Doug Podiak for their work to prepare the county’s beaches for their grand reopening last Friday.
Assistant County Manager Taco Pope encouraged the public to watch a recorded webinar the county held in conjunction with North Florida Land Trust on acquiring land for conservation. “(NFLT is) asking for public input to help determine what lands will best serve the county’s environmental needs to ensure sustainability, maintain the rural character of the county and provide outdoor recreational opportunities,” according to a news release. Pope noted that there is a survey on the website that will be open for a couple of weeks and encouraged everyone to take it and share it on social media, saying the more information the better. The webinar and the survey are at https://bit.ly/3dqQccC.
Other items on the special meeting agenda of the Nassau County Board of County Commissioners on May 6 were proclaiming this week as National Travel and Tourism Week, giving more money to the Nassau County Council on Aging to acquire prepared food for seniors in need, and authorizing a $356,573 payment to the Florida Government Utility Authority for “various Nassau Amelia Utility improvements.”