As Florida slowly lifts stay-at-home orders — caused by concerns about potential spread of coronavirus disease-2019 (COVID-19) — local leaders and officials are taking a positive, yet guarded, outlook.
They are hopeful that the regional and state economy can rebound sooner than later.
Many retailers and restaurants have announced plans to reopen to modified dine-in and foot traffic, while more parks and beaches are reopening with restrictions.
Signs of optimism are beginning to show, state Rep. Randy Maggard, R-Dade City said, during an April 28 virtual town hall meeting presented by The Greater Zephyrhills Chamber of Commerce.
“A lot of people feel we’ve crossed the high point of (COVID-19) and we’re on the downward slide. We hope so,” Maggard said.
In the same breath, he urged people to continue to take necessary safety precautions and “use common sense” in public gatherings.
“It will be good to get our economy going. It’s been tough for a lot of businesses here, it’s been tough for a lot of individuals,” he said.
Maggard also addressed “the 800-pound gorilla in the room” during the speaking engagement. And, that’s the fact that the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO) is having trouble managing the massive volume of people filing for unemployment benefit claims.
The state representative pointed out roughly 40% of the 1.8 million claims filed have been either bogus or scams. That has led to further delays in legitimate applicants getting their unemployment benefits, he said.
“The process just takes long when you have to deal with things like that,” Maggard said, adding the DEO is expected to have those issues resolved soon.
Pasco County Commissioner Ron Oakley, like Maggard, has an optimistic view of the future of the local economy and markets, overall.
“Things will get better. There is a light at the end of that long tunnel we didn’t think we’d have,” Oakley said.”
He said Pasco government activities have not slowed, in the midst of COVID-19.
Oakley noted that neighboring counties haven’t been so lucky as to keep operations moving along when it comes to handling regular tasks, such as reviewing building permits.
“We’ve continued to work, as we do normally,” Oakley said, “except most of our people are working from home instead of our offices.”
Oakley, 74, is still taking the virus quite seriously, however.
He reported the county had 241 positive coronavirus cases and six deaths, as of April 28. One place particularly “hit hard” is the Royal Oak Nursing Center in Dade City, with 20 positive COVID-19 cases, he said.
The commissioner acknowledged most of the people who’ve died from the disease have had pre-existing conditions. But, he added: “This is not the flu. It’s a little more infectious than the flu is.”
So, while businesses start opening with some semblance of normalcy, Oakley said he’s not yet comfortable to enter a restaurant or other public spaces.
“You probably won’t see me out in a restaurant, that’s just my feeling,” said Oakley. “Of course, I’m of the age that the virus will treat me a lot worse than it would for younger people, but I think there’s probably a pretty large percentage of young people, middle-aged people that will do that, they’ll go right back out, they’re not fearful of any of that, and hopefully they’re taking precautions.”
Like Oakley, Zephyrhills Police Chief Derek Brewer remains concerned about the serious nature of COVID-19 and feels it isn’t going away anytime soon — witnessing the virus’s impact on the frontlines.
Brewer said there’s an expectation the county’s coronavirus cases could peak sometime around mid-May, based on joint conversations with the Pasco Sheriff’s Office and Pasco County Emergency Management.
“We may be getting close to opening the state,” Brewer said, “but, I don’t think we’re going to be ready yet to open it up completely yet.”
The police chief reported Zephyrhills has 25 positive COVID-19 cases as of April 28, representing more than 10% of all cases in the county. Additionally, the department is tracking a total of 48 addresses under investigation as possible COVID-19 cases as of that date.
Meanwhile, Brewer said the local law enforcement agency has observed spikes in domestic violence and disturbance cases, as well as increased juvenile problems, during the course of the pandemic.
On the other hand, the department has seen fewer accidents and total calls for service overall.
With fewer service calls, Brewer said officers have placed more focus on performing spot checks on local businesses that may not be in compliance with state executive orders.
He also noted the department has enacted an “extensive screening process” to determine whether someone absolutely needs to be sent to jail after an arrest. That approach is being taken to try and limit the spread of COVID-19 within the local criminal justice system.
He said the pandemic “has been a been a unique challenge for law enforcement.”
City of Zephyrhills pushing through COVID-19
Zephyrhills City Manager Billy Poe also offered an update on some of happenings within the East Pasco municipality throughout the town hall discussion.
Despite the COVID-19 outbreak, Poe said the city is “open for business, so there are still a lot of projects that are going on.”
For instance, work is progressing on multiple subdivisions and communities that will bring hundreds of new homes to the area. Those projects include the Oaks at Pasco and Links at Calusa Springs located on both sides of Simons Road; District at Abbott’s Square near the forthcoming Sarah Vande Berg Tennis & Wellbeing Center; and Abbott Park, situated on the former Gore’s Dairy property that wraps behind the Publix Super Market at Zephyr Commons on Gall Boulevard.
Several commercial developments are moving along, too.
A couple notable projects under final site plan review include a new Veterans Administration clinic along Eiland Boulevard, as well as the Crystal Bar rebuild on Gall Boulevard, a longtime community staple destroyed in a fire last May.
Poe said a Chipotle Mexican Grill franchise at Zephyr Commons “is projected to come here in the next few months.” Also, the Chancey Partners industrial park project continues its build out with “a lot of businesses going in at that location.”
Poe touched on various city-related projects, as well:
- Relocation of the U.S. 301/Pretty Pond Road traffic signal should get underway in August, spurring development in that area, which he said will eventually include a Chick-fil-A franchise
- Sarah Vande Berg Tennis & Wellbeing Center construction “continues to be strong” and should be complete around July or August
- Road paving and resurfacing has been ongoing at various city streets the past several weeks
Elsewhere, the city manager encouraged residents to continue to support local businesses “either by takeout or gift cards or anything that you can do.”
He also noted he’s in conversation with Zephyrhills High School Principal Dr. Christina Stanley to “plan something special” for graduating seniors, such as a parade or other community-wide gathering at some point.
Other speakers during the town hall included Zephyrhills Mayor Gene Whitfield and Zephyrhills City Council president Ken Burgess.
Published May 06, 2020