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00000177-b32b-d5f4-a5ff-bbfb6e660000Here is the information you need to know about COVID-19 in Northwest Florida. We will keep this post updated with the latest information from local, and statewide agencies. For inforamtion from Centers for Disease Control and prevention: cdc.gov/coronavirusFor updates on Florida cases of coronavirus, visit the FDOH dashboard.The COVID-19 call center is available at 24/7 at 1-866-779-6121

COVID-19 Meeting Protocols Keep Citizens Safe, Involved

Photo courtesy of Santa Rosa County

For some time, residents have been able to watch local government meetings via live streaming.

Now, because of COVID-19, Escambia County is strongly encouraging electronic “participation” ahead of their next meeting tomorrow (Thurs) afternoon.

This is one example of the changes governmental bodies across the region are making, to keep citizens safe - and engaged - during the current crisis.

Credit Photo courtesy of Okaloosa County
Photo courtesy of Okaloosa County
At their March 31 meeting, Okaloosa County commissioners are practicing social distancing. It's part of their new norm in the wake of the current coronavirus crisis.

“Good morning and welcome to the March 31 Special Meeting of the Okaloosa County Board of County Commissioners,” proclaimed Okaloosa County Commission Chairman Trey Goodwin, as he opened Tuesday’s meeting.

Right away, he shifted into details of new protocols to enhance safety

“We’ve got a guest speaker that will be appearing by Zoom. We’ve got a commissioner who will be appearing by video feed,” Goodwin said.

“Then, you’ll notice in the room that the dais up here has been spaced out to try to meet the required guidelines. We’ve spaced out the room from six feet to ten feet to try to increase safety.”

For the public comment portion of the meeting, Okaloosa commissioners suspended the filling out of paper speaker cards, to reduce communal touching of paper and pens, and recognized the few speakers in the audience by hand.

Between speakers, staff took a few seconds for a quick sanitizing.

Credit Photo courtesy of Okaloosa County
Photo courtesy of Okaloosa County
The podium where members of the public address Okaloosa County Commissioners is sanitized between speakers. Staff member Barbara Bottoms, seated behind the podium, waits for this speaker to finish.

“Other speakers, gentleman right here,” said Goodwin, as he selected the next person to address the board. “Give us an opportunity to get the podium clean before you approach. That way we’re minimizing any spread.”

“Hello,” said Santa Rosa County Commission Chairman Don Salter, as he joined the March 26 meeting via teleconference.

“Good morning, Commissioner Salter, we got you loud and clear,” responded County Administrator Dan Schebler, welcoming Salter to the meeting.

District 2 Commissioner Bob Cole also took part by phone.

“Our agenda says “regular” commission meeting, but this is anything but,” said Commissioner Lane Lynchard as he brought the meeting to order. With Salter participating remotely, the board vice chairman from District 5 conducted the meeting.

“We’ve had to implement new temporary meeting procedures in response to the coronavirus. We’re following the guidelines from the CDC, the Department of Health, Gov. DeSantis and our local health department,” Lynchard explained.

Credit Photo courtesy of Santa Rosa County
Photo courtesy of Santa Rosa County
Santa Rosa County Commissioners exercise social distancing at a recent meeting, before a near empty audience.

This means social distancing for all participants, including commissioners and county staff. Additionally, in the Santa Rosa commission chambers, members of the public are greeted with red “Keep this seat empty” signs to ensure proper spacing in the audience.

When it comes to public forum, some speakers attended. But, Lynchard said residents also had the opportunity to weigh in online, beforehand.

“We do have in our agenda the public input that was provided earlier via email. And, so the commissioners have had a chance to review that as we move through these items.”

“We are strongly encouraging that people participate electronically,” declared Escambia County Commission Chairman Steven Barry.

Because of limits on in-person attendance, this is what his board is doing to promote public involvement at their next meeting this Thursday afternoon.

“It’s not an instance where anyone is going to be denied the opportunity to have their comments and their feelings become part of the permanent record with their government,” Barry explained.

“But, we are asking people, strongly encouraging them to submit their comments through and online hotlink, where we would be taking comments for public forum as well, as comments for different items on the agenda through that link. And, people would have the ability to submit comments in the board meeting through the time that the board would actually take the vote on the item.”

Escambia County Commission Chairman Steven Barry is urging residents to take part electronically in the board's upcoming meeting.

An online speaker form is available on the county’s website under on the meetings page. Name and address are required as usual, with suggestion to keep comments within normal time limits. 

According to Barry, someone from the County Attorney’s office will monitor for the incoming comments, print them off in real time and walk them up to be read into the record at the appropriate time.

Generally, Escambia is following the procedures for social distancing and sanitization, implemented during the recent meetings in Santa Rosa and Okaloosa.

Although, it would take state action to continue public comment electronically, Barry says he wouldn’t be surprised to see many of the current COVID-19 meeting practices continue beyond this crisis.

“Given the current situation and the change in every aspect of our citizens’ daily lives, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to think that business as usual might not be exactly the same, even a year from now,” Barry said.

Escambia Commissioners will convene Thursday’s regular meeting at 5:30 p.m., with Public Forum to begin at 4:30 p.m.

The hotlink was activated earlier in the week and by the close of business Tuesday a couple dozen comments had been received.

Many more online comments and questions are likely following Gov. Ron DeSantis’ new statewide “stay at home” order.

Sandra Averhart has been News Director at WUWF since 1996. Her first job in broadcasting was with (then) Pensacola radio station WOWW107-FM, where she worked 11 years. Sandra, who is a native of Pensacola, earned her B.S. in Communication from Florida State University.