By Charles Elmore
Debates about how to grapple with COVID-19’s receding but not extinguished risks are hardly producing lockstep policies among Palm Beach County’s southern coastal communities as they sort through a dizzying flurry of federal, state and local attempts to shape the rules.
But thanks to a rising tide of vaccinations along the coast, a lot of things in June will look closer to normal than they have since the worst pandemic in a century hit with full force more than a year ago.
In June, Boca Raton’s City Council plans to return to meeting in person, though in the larger 6500 Municipal Building on Congress Avenue rather than City Hall. Council member Yvette Drucker, for one, won’t miss the “audio issues” and other glitches common to virtual gatherings.
“I am ready to go back,” Drucker said.
Mask mandates are being peeled away for people who have been vaccinated, in many public spaces and some but not all businesses — even if in practice that often means taking people at their word. Driving much of the change in the past five weeks, and not always without controversy, have been U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance and Gov. Ron DeSantis’ executive actions that sought to eliminate or restrict what safety rules local governments can impose.
Health officials cheered falling infection rates but warned the threat has not entirely vanished just because a lot of folks are ready to move on.
Less than half of Palm Beach County’s 1.5 million residents had received full or partial COVID-19 vaccinations by May 24, according to the state’s Department of Health.
County health director Alina Alonso noted county vaccination rates fell short of “herd immunity” — typically meaning at least 70% to 80% — and that children under 12, for example, have not generally had access to vaccines. She urged people to wear masks even after vaccination. Direct hospitalization and death are not the only COVID-19 threats for some age groups, with the long-term effects of the virus still under study, she said.
“We still have to be careful,” Alonso said. “We don’t want to slip and go backwards.”
High vaccine rates on coast
Still, many communities along the county’s southeast coast have been getting shots at a rate above the county average, with ZIP codes in the region often achieving 55% to 85% vaccination rates by the end of April, government records showed. With May results expected to drive rates higher, some local officials saw encouragement to take action.
As of June 1, Delray Beach said it would return to in-person City Commission and board meetings without temperature checks for the public. Anyone entering a municipal facility will be asked to wear a mask if he or she has not been fully vaccinated, city policy says.
“Public meetings are a vital part of our representative government,” Mayor Shelly Petrolia said. “In-person meetings allow for a human connection and clarity of communication with those we represent.”
Meetings still are streamed live online, but the city’s pre-recorded public comment line will no longer be used. People who want to comment must do so in person.
Boca Raton was ready to ditch virtual meetings May 10, though officials put off enactment until June to allow more time for affected staff members to make sure they got second COVID shots.
Manalapan was one of the first coastal communities to go exclusively to Zoom meetings after the pandemic started, and it was one of the first to quit Zooming and resume in-person meetings late last year. During a Town Commission meeting on May 25, it was one of the first to relax mask and distancing restrictions.
“If you’re fully vaccinated, you don’t need to wear a mask,” Town Manager Linda Stumpf said. “We’re following county health department and CDC requirements.”
Public access for commission meetings increased from six open seats to 15. But Stumpf said Town Hall will continue to be closed for other business until October, with contractors and vendors entering by appointment only.
“When the season starts and people start coming back, we’ll open it up,” she said.
Businesses ease protocols
Towns and cities are not the only ones making changes.
Publix, Walmart, Costco, Starbucks and Trader Joe’s joined the list of retailers that removed mask mandates for customers who have been vaccinated.
Publix “will no longer require fully vaccinated associates or customers to wear face coverings, unless required by a state or local order or ordinance,” a company statement said May 14. “In accordance with CDC guidelines, individuals who are not fully vaccinated are required to use face coverings over their noses and mouths while inside any Publix store.”
Fully vaccinated, according to the CDC, means two weeks after a one-shot vaccine or the second jab of a two-shot vaccine.
Early in May, DeSantis made permanent a ban on vaccine “passports,” meaning businesses cannot require proof of vaccination from customers, though they can continue to require masks and distancing if they choose.
Not all movie theaters survived the pandemic, and those that did have reopened under varying schedules and precautions designed to reassure customers. As of late May, Cinemark Palace 20 and XD in Boca Raton, for example, continued to require people to wear masks except when eating or drinking inside the auditorium, according to its website. Reduced theater capacities and staggered show times were still in effect.
DeSantis also signed an executive order suspending COVID-19 restrictions imposed by city and county governments, which Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber likened to “spiking the ball on the 10-yard line.”
Municipalities use caution
Despite the unease, mask mandates have ended in many local government settings.
By May 18, masks were no longer required in county government buildings for people who have received shots.
Ocean Ridge still requires people to wear face coverings in Town Hall, unless they are seated and properly distanced from others, Town Manager Tracey Stevens said.
“As you know, we have a very limited staff and still need to take precautions for those employees that are not vaccinated,” Stevens said. “It would be devastating to our operations if several employees became sick at once.”
Lantana officials said they were following the governor’s orders and CDC guidelines.
Most people who attended the May 24 Town Council meeting did not wear masks, although town staff did. Chairs were still set 6 feet apart in the council chambers.
The town’s Centennial Celebration at Bicentennial Park is on track for July 4 and social distancing will be adhered to for children’s games. All activities will be outside and masks will not be required.
Highland Beach has been holding commission meetings in person for several months but limiting public attendance while Town Hall was otherwise closed to the public.
Starting June 1, Town Hall was open again during regular business hours, with masks “strongly encouraged.” Zoom participation will continue for public meetings. The town post office and library are open again with regular hours but with restrictions on the number of people allowed inside at any given time, with masks encouraged.
Boynton Beach began holding commission meetings in its chambers in January. The chairs in the chambers are set up for social distancing, but face masks and temperature checks are not required.
Signs vaccines are working
More than 585,000 of Palm Beach County’s residents had received a full vaccination by May 24, with another 140,000 getting at least a first shot, state records showed.
While that represented only about half of the county’s total residents, the highest proportion of shots has been going to the most vulnerable age group, people 65 and over.
Coronavirus infections and hospitalizations have been falling, while positive results for people getting tested for COVID-19 were dipping below 6% by the middle of May. That was down from nearly 30% in the most virulent phases of the pandemic in 2020.
Vaccinations are clearly having an impact on infection rates, Alonso said, but that does not mean all risks have disappeared. On May 24, more than 2,400 Floridians were still hospitalized with the virus and 53 new cases and eight deaths were reported in the county.
“If you’re not vaccinated, masks are still recommended,” Alonso said. With family members she cares about vulnerable to infection, she said even after vaccination she plans to wear her mask for some time to come.
Mary Hladky, Dan Moffett, Jane Smith and Mary Thurwachter contributed to this story.