Will the COVID-19 pandemic end soon?

It’s been a year since the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic shocked the United States and the world, but brighter days are seemingly ahead, thanks to the ramp up of vaccinations combined with other established health and safety protocols.

Dr. Javier Gonzalez, a board-certified emergency department medical director with AdventHealth Dade City and AdventHealth Zephyrhills, for one, is cautiously optimistic that a sense of normalcy could arrive by summertime.

Dr. Javier Gonzalez, AdventHealth Dade City and AdventHealth Zephyrhills board-certified emergency department medical director (Courtesy of AdventHealth)

That’s assuming that surging COVID-19 virus variants don’t “get crazy” and force the population to get revaccinated, he said.

“Hopefully we’ll get through this in July when we’re supposed to be majority vaccinated, so hopefully this won’t last long and we’re in the final stretch,” Gonzalez said. “As soon as we can get everybody vaccinated, the easier it will be for all for us to go back to a normal time again.”

Gonzalez was the featured guest speaker during The Greater Zephyrhills Chamber of Commerce March virtual business breakfast meeting.

Gonzalez — also certified as a diplomate with the American Board of Toxicology — spent the bulk of his 45-minute informational talk discussing the various COVID-19 vaccines available and the science behind them.

The health care leader explained the “whole goal” of the vaccines is not necessarily about not getting COVID-19, but rather to mitigate or prevent serious complications or death from the virus.

He put it like this: “People think the goal of the vaccine is, ‘I don’t want to get the disease.’ No, the purpose of the vaccine is not getting the complications. So, the endpoint really should be, ‘Am I going to get sick enough that I’m going to go to the hospital, or am I going to die from COVID-19?’ That’s what you’re trying to prevent, just like the flu vaccine. Most people can get the flu even if you’re vaccinated, but you don’t want to die from the flu, you don’t want to get the pneumonia complications.”

Gonzalez detailed how vaccines are designed to introduce some of the viral genetic material into the body so antibodies can be developed, “which is the key to help you fight the virus in the future.”

He shot down myths that the authorized COVID-19 vaccines may somehow change or interact with a person’s DNA in any way, explaining how the vaccine is delivered into cell’s cytoplasm, not the nucleus.

Said Gonzalez, “I know a lot of people are concerned it’s messing with our DNA. It doesn’t; it stays outside the nucleus of our cells, so it doesn’t go into where our DNA is…”

He touched on the efficacy of the various types of available vaccines, too.

He mentioned both the Pfizer and Moderna mRNA vaccines have shown to be about 95% effective in preventing COVID-19 infections for the general population, while the AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson viral vector vaccines have come in at 72% and 70%, respectively.

For comparison, the annual flu shot is about 40% to 50% effective in preventing influenza, he said.

The notable piece, Gonzalez emphasized, is the four COVID-19 vaccines are proven 100% effective in preventing hospitalizations and deaths related to the virus.

“Don’t be discouraged by these (efficacy) numbers,” he said. “Look at the flu vaccine. We get it every year, and it’s only 40% to 50% effective, but (lack of) hospitalization and death is the important factor here. I don’t care if I get COVID, as long as I don’t die from it.”

Saint Leo University hosted the first COVID-19 vaccine distribution in East Pasco County back in mid-January, at its campus in St. Leo. (File)

With that, he encouraged people to go ahead and get the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine, if eligible to do so.

Said Gonzalez, “Is Johnson & Johnson weaker? Yeah, it’s weaker for you not to get COVID, but it’s going to prevent me from going to the hospital and dying from it, so if you are eligible to get the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, then by all means, please get it.”

Gov. Ron DeSantis expanded the groups eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine in Florida, as of March 15, to include those age 60 or older.

Eligibility continues to evolve, so be sure to check for the latest information on state or local health department websites.

Gonzalez, who’s been vaccinated himself, acknowledged experiencing some pain in the injection site.

He knows others have experienced headaches, fatigues and muscle aches for 24 hours to 48 hours — not dissimilar to flu shot symptoms.

He recommended taking Tylenol for relief post-injection. “When you get a side effect from the flu vaccine, most likely you’ll probably get it from COVID-19 (too),” Gonzalez said.

Serious side effects like anaphylaxis are rare, with less than a 0.1% reported, he said, adding, “We haven’t seen any deaths from people getting COVID vaccines.”

Meantime, as others wait to get vaccinated, Gonzalez emphasized continuing proper mask-wearing in public spaces.

He underscored how it reduces risk of transmission or spread of respiratory droplets containing viruses, whether through breathing, talking, coughing or sneezing.

The medical professional admitted, like others, he doesn’t particularly enjoy wearing a mask, but illustrated the bigger picture at play: “I know it’s cumbersome, (but) it doesn’t take that long, you’re helping your neighbor, you’re helping yourself, so, it’s just easier to wear one, whether you believe in it or not, it doesn’t take much from somebody to wear a mask. Just cover your mouth and cover your nose, and be a good citizen with everybody else.”

Improved COVID-19 treatment options
From an encouraging standpoint, inpatient and outpatient COVID-19 treatment options have improved greatly since the pandemic’s onset, Gonzalez observed.

Inpatient hospital care options include anti-virals like remdesivir, similar to Tamiflu to fight influenza; steroids like decadron, given to patients with low oxygen saturations; and convalescent plasma injections, whereby COVID-19 survivors’ antibodies are transfused into sick COVID-19 patients.

In the way of outpatient COVID-19 management, AdventHealth Dade City and AdventHealth Zephyrhills were some of the first hospitals in the health care system’s West Florida division offering monoclonal antibody infusion, Gonzalez said.

This illustration, created at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), reveals ultrastructural morphology exhibited by coronaviruses. (File)

With monoclonal antibody infusion, synthetic antibodies created in a pharmaceutical laboratory are used to limit the amount of virus in the body, treating COVID-19 positive patients and preventing progression to more severe cases and symptoms.

The therapy requires an IV infusion at the hospital and takes about three hours, Gonzalez said.

“We got a lot of good feedback from patients that have received this,” he said, noting his parents and fellow physicians have received therapy at both facilities. “Within 24 hours they were miraculously better.”

Gonzalez pointed out this treatment was actually used to help President Donald Trump recover from the coronavirus, administered at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, in Bethesda, Maryland.

Don’t ignore other health care issues
Even amid the pandemic, Gonzalez strongly advised people to not put other non-COVID-19-related health care issues on hold, or simply ignore new or persistent symptoms.

Hospitals have taken extreme measures to make sure that people with COVID-19 are held in separate locations, he said, so there shouldn’t be fear of visiting facilities to take care of other medical conditions — whether it’s diabetes, hypertension, or routine cancer screenings.

“Please keep your appointments for chronic disease management, especially if you’re taking medications,” he said.

The speaker noted how hospitals are reporting fewer heart attacks and strokes amid fear of COVID-19 —worrying doctors that patients are avoiding visits for health issues that require prompt care.

“Timing can be the difference,” he said. “If you wait too long (to seek medical care) you’re going to get more comorbidities and more risk for mortality or death.”

A seasonal virus?
At least one lingering question is whether COVID-19 will become a seasonal virus, like the flu.

Gonzalez said it’s “really a debatable question,” adding, “at this time, there’s no data suggesting it will be seasonal.”

However, the medical director explained because COVID-19 is virally enveloped, it’s more apt to survive and travel in cold weather.

Moreover, because sunlight is less intense in the wintertime, there’s less UV radiation light to kill the virus, he said.

Other concerning factors of the virus perhaps spreading more in the wintertime, he said, is a byproduct of people congregating in enclosed indoor spaces more often. There’s also risk of weakened immune responses as people have less Vitamin D amid less sunlight, he said, so supplements are recommended in wintry months.

Symptoms of Coronavirus (COVID-19)
Symptoms can range from mild to severe, and appear two days to 14 days after exposure to the virus that causes COVID-19.

  • Fever/chills
  • Shortness of breath
  • Dry cough
  • Loss of smell/taste
  • Muscle aches
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea

Note: Seek medical care immediately if someone has emergency warning signs of COVID-19.

  • Trouble breathing
  • Persistent pain or pressure in the chest
  • New confusion
  • Inability to wake or stay awake
  • Bluish lips or face

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Five mistakes to avoid with your mask

  • Not washing your hands
  • Not covering your nose and mouth
  • Touching or adjusting mask
  • Masking too late, removing it too soon
  • Reusing old/dirty masks

Source: Akron Children’s Hospital

COVID-19 general prevention measures

  • Avoid sick individuals
  • Socially distance at least six feet
  • Wash hands for at least 20 seconds
  • Disinfect high-touch and high-transit areas, such as elevators and stairwells
  • Wear a mask in the community

Published March 17, 2021

Pigz in Z’Hills festival set for April 10

A scaled-down version of the annual Pigz in Z’Hills BBQ & Blues Fest has been set for April 10.

The festival, being held for the 11th year, will take place at the Zephyrhills Community Venue, 5200 Airport Road, directly across from the Zephyrhills Municipal Airport. Event hours are from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Melonie Monson, executive director of Greater Zephyrhills Chamber of Commerce Director (File)

Unlike previous years, activities will be staggered throughout the day, to accommodate health and safety protocols related to the coronavirus pandemic.

A drive-thru BBQ meal pickup line will be in place from 11 a.m. until 2 p.m., followed by a live blues concert from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m., with select food vendors, such as gourmet French fries and kettle corn, as well as alcohol sales and more barbecue options.

Other happenings include an all-day cornhole toss tournament and free tours of the Zephyrhills Museum of Military History, to get look at refurbished wartime planes and other unique memorabilia.

Tickets are expected to be made available for purchase within the next couple weeks.

Various packages will be sold separately for the drive-thru meal and concert, plus cornhole tournament entry fees.

The popular food and music shindig has been twice postponed already — pushed back from scheduled dates in January and February.

A socially distanced live music concert will be among the happenings at the 11th annual Pigz in Z’Hills BBQ & Blues Fest. Chuck Riley’s All-Star Band will be one of the lead acts, among other performers.

This latest reboot is all but set in stone, however.

The Greater Zephyrhills Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors and the Pigz in Z’Hills BBQ & Blues Committee recently came to a consensus with how to proceed with a setup, taking into account various COVID-19 protocols.

Working in the festival’s favor is an anticipated increased rollout of coronavirus vaccines by springtime, plus a venue of more than a dozen acres, Greater Zephyrhills Chamber of Commerce Director Melonie Monson told The Laker/Lutz News in a recent interview.

“We just kept building and formulating, and we really felt, ‘Let’s go forward with this. This event is really important to Zephyrhills, so we wanted to do it,” Monson said.

“It was a relief to finally come up with a plan of action, and to be able to find a way that we could put this on safely and still really just showcase our community. Now comes the hard work though of making sure we put it all together, but we’re excited about this format, and we’re kind of really thrilled to see where it goes.”

While this year’s Pigz in Z’Hills BBQ & Blues Fest will be pared down amid the COVID-19 pandemic, there’ll be a variety of barbecue options to go around for all attendees.

Noticeably absent from this year’s makeshift event is the prized BBQ cookoff contest that often attracts more than 60 competitive teams, plus a slew of judges and countless volunteers.

The BBQ showdown often draws professional grilling teams who travel to barbecue events all over the United States.

Monson said it was “a hard decision” among stakeholders to remove the hit cookoff competition from this year’s festival, but “we knew we could not do that safely in a COVID environment, so unfortunately, that had to go away this year.”

Other elements, such as a classic car show, a business expo and a kid’s fun zone won’t be part of the festivities this year either, according to Monson said.

With a date, time and location locked in for Pigz In Z’Hills, organizers and volunteers are working diligently to get the logistics all in place over the next two months.

This includes finalizing a full music lineup.

One of the confirmed headliners is Chuck Riley’s All Star Band, a longtime festival act.

As for other performers, Monson teased, “I think everybody’s going to be shocked when they see who all is going to be there.”

Here’s how the concert will be laid out for attendees:

  • Spots are reserved by purchasing a 10-by-10 foot grid, good for up to six people.
  • Price points will be based on vicinity to the music stage, with prices ranging from $40 to $100.
  • Concert-goers are encouraged to bring lawn chairs or blankets.
Between all the grub and tunes, a daylong cornhole toss tournament figures to be a popular spot at this year’s Pigz in Z’Hills BBQ & Blues Fest.

For individuals or families just looking for a hearty BBQ meal, the drive-thru option will offer a choice of pulled chicken or brisket, plus an assortment of sides. Cost for that is $15 per person, though there is expected to be family meal option, too.

Meantime, the cornhole tournament will be broken into a recreation and competitive divisions, with a $500 prize to the winning team.

Entry fees are expected to be $20 and $40 per team, based on division.

Pigz in Z’Hills is not just a community entertainment tradition, but a major fundraiser for student scholarships, and about a dozen nonprofits and community organizations, such as Boy Scouts, East Pasco YMCA, and Relay for Life of Zephyrhills.

To help make up for anticipated funding shortages from this year’s pared down event, the local chamber this month launched a campaign called “Love Your Non-Profit” which showcases different organizations and solicits public donations for each.

“Being able to give scholarships to our youth here in Zephyrhills is a big deal, and we just need to do it. They don’t need to suffer. They’ve already been through enough,” the chamber director said.

For more information, call 813-782-1913, or email .

Published February 10, 2021

Burgess discusses pandemic response

Florida State Sen. Danny Burgess undoubtedly has a full plate of responsibilities as he settles into his new legislative role representing District 20, which spans parts of Hillsborough, Pasco and Polk counties.

Most notable for the 34-year-old Republican from Zephyrhills is tackling existing and lasting effects of the coronavirus pandemic. He is chairman of the newly created Select Committee on Pandemic Response and Preparedness — a role appointed by Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby.

Florida State Sen. Danny Burgess was the featured guest speaker at The Greater Zephyrhills Chamber of Commerce’s Jan. 7 business breakfast meeting. The newly elected Zephyrhills Republican also is serving as chairman of the recently created Select Committee on Pandemic Response and Preparedness. (Kevin Weiss)

The first-term Senate member discussed COVID-19 response and other topics as the featured guest speaker at The Greater Zephyrhills Chamber of Commerce’s Jan. 7 breakfast meeting at Golden Corral in Zephyrhills.

Burgess didn’t mince words regarding the magnitude of short- and long-term issues that need to be tackled by the 10-member pandemic committee.

“It’s a big responsibility ahead of us,” Burgess told the room of local business leaders. “We’re still learning as we go. We’re building this plane as we’re flying…because this is a new world we’re in and this (virus) has never existed before.”

The committee, Burgess said, will examine “every area that’s been impacted,” particularly in the way of business issues related to the coronavirus, including restaurants, retail, entertainment establishments and so on.

One such example is introducing liability protections if someone claims they contracted COVID-19 at a particular locale, he said.

Burgess explained: “As you’re opening up (businesses) again, you don’t need to be looking over your shoulder wondering if you’re going to get sued because this person said they got COVID at your place or your hand sanitizer machine was empty, right? That’s the kind of stuff that we’re looking at there.”

He continued with pro-business sentiments, adding “there should be a presumption that businesses should be open” through the pandemic going forward.

“You should be able to operate in an environment and not be told to shut down,” said Burgess, an attorney partnered in a full-service practice in Dade City.

“As long we we’re taking the appropriate (health and safety) steps and doing what you need to do as a business, you should not have to shut your doors because there are devastating impacts that could be just as bad as the virus, if you think about it.

“We have to make sure that people can earn a living, that people can stay on their feet and make a wage and not cripple our economy, and so there’s gotta be that balance.”

Aside from business impacts, surging mental health problems amid the pandemic will be a heavy focus for Burgess and other Senate leaders, too.

The lawmaker pointed out regional mental health crisis intervention calls “are up like 200%  routinely” in parts of the state, and suicide rates already “are really high, but that’s going up, too.

“I think all of us are extremely worried about the second- and third-order effects of the pandemic,” Burgess said. “I believe there’s things that are coming down the road that we haven’t fully realized yet, and a lot of it has to do in the world of mental health, some of the economic fallout that we’ve seen from people who don’t have a job anymore or lost their business, maybe lost their home, so I’m really concerned about homelessness, and I’m really concerned about mental health.”

Youth educational disruptions because of COVID-19 figures to be another boiling point for the committee, Burgess said.

“There’s going to be a lot of kids left behind potentially because of what we had to do with barriers of being able to go to school,” said Burgess, who also noted COVID-19 school closures have inhibited the reporting of child abuse and neglect cases.

Burgess said the state legislature also will be navigating tough 2021 budget sessions because of unforeseen cuts and shortfalls from the pandemic. Despite that, he said, “we have to continue to push for our priorities and things that are important to us, and just work within the means, right?”

COVID-19 vaccine clinic in East Pasco
Furthering on the COVID-19 topic, Burgess said he’s been in communication with the Florida Department of Health to secure at least one vaccine clinic at an East Pasco location.

Since Burgess’ talk, a drive-thru vaccination site has been set up at Saint Leo University.

There also is a drive-thru vaccination clinic in Pasco, and it’s on the west side —  at Sears in the Gulfview Square Mall, at 9409 U.S. 19, Port Richey.

Meantime, the senator said he and other state leaders are pushing for legislation to eventually make COVID-19 vaccines available at pharmacies like Walgreens and CVS, similar to how the flu vaccine is administered by a trained pharmacist at those respective locations.

Zephyrhills resilient through pandemic
Elsewhere, Burgess commended his hometown and surrounding areas for their resilience during the pandemic.

“I think the thing that always stands out to me about Zephyrhills and the East Pasco community is how much you support the community, and you would think in a time like this we’re all facing very financial constraining challenges you wouldn’t be able to do that as much, but it’s really incredible to see, despite the inward challenges that we’re facing that we didn’t stop supporting the greater community as a whole.”

Burgess made a point to praise growth and development of the city’s downtown main street corridor, and the varied activities and experiences the area now offers.

Those new attractions are drawing day-trippers from surrounding areas, such as Plant City and Tampa, he said.

He also tipped his hat to businesses popping up along Fifth Avenue, such as the microbrewery, axe throwing, billiards hall, a board game café, vintage crafts and furniture store, to name a few.

And all of this happening, despite the pandemic.

“I mean, I grew up downtown. I’ve been getting Slurpee’s at the 7-Eleven my whole life and it’s never been like this,” Burgess said. “It’s got like a life now, so this is becoming a little bit of a unique destination, so we need to capitalize on this.”

Published January 20, 2021

Pigz in Z’Hills festival postponed until April

Like so many other major events throughout the Tampa Bay area, the 11th annual Pigz in Z’Hills BBQ & Blues Fest will be forced to make many adjustments in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The largest annual event in Zephyrhills — which was slated for Feb. 27 — has been tentatively postponed until April, in the name of health and safety. Exact dates, times and a location are still to be determined, as are ticket and parking prices.

The Greater Zephyrhills Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors agreed on the postponement in mid-December, after consulting with medical professionals and event partners, according to a chamber news release.

This year’s Pigz in Z’Hills BBQ & Blues Fest may feature a socially distanced car drive-in concert format with local or Florida-based bands only. But, there won’t be the other usual frills like a prized BBQ team competition, car show, cornhole tournament, business expo, or kids fun zone. (File)

The BBQ festival’s reboot will take on a different flavor in 2021 compared to past years — possibly focusing on just a drive-in concert and drive-thru BBQ meal pickup.

More concrete details will be hammered out following another board meeting in late January, where final event recommendations will be agreed upon, Greater Zephyrhills Chamber of Commerce Director Melonie Monson told The Laker/Lutz News in a recent interview.

Multiple proposals already have been discussed with Pigz in Z’Hills committee members and chamber leaders on the best approach.

One general concept that has been floated includes having attendees simply “drive through a line and pick up their BBQ, and then park and stay in their cars and listen to a concert,” Monson said.

But even this plan and its logistics have been questioned, as Monson said organizers “really struggled with some of the concept and the concern, so I think we’re back to square one of how we can do this in a COVID world and ensure safety.”

“The board really wants to be extra cautious, for sure,” she added.

Much concern from the board lies with the hundreds of volunteers who help make the event possible, Monson said. A point already has been made to excuse any youth and elderly helpers for this year’s festival, she said.

Said Monson: “That’s where a lot of it plays out — is can we guarantee safety to the people volunteering all day? You know, that’s the bottom line when it comes to things.”

Should a makeshift food and music show go on in some way or another, only local or Florida-based bands would be showcased for the event, Monson said.

Meanwhile, a final menu is being completed.

To do this, the chamber is collaborating with three of its regular cooking teams to serve up various offerings for attendees, perhaps an entrée choice of ribs, barbecued chicken or pork with various sides and drinks.

Aside from heaps of food and live music, Pigz in Z’Hills typically features a prized BBQ cookoff contest, car show, cornhole tournament, business expo, kids fun zone and tours of the Zephyrhills Military History Museum.

Those are off the table for the festival this year — though some type of combined car show and cornhole tournament may be organized through the chamber for sometime this summer, Monson said.

Event organizers have reached out to would-be BBQ competitors with information on refunds and to sponsors about being a part of the hybrid event.

A community staple and major fundraiser
Pigz in Z’Hills has not only been cemented as a community entertainment staple over the years, but also is a major fundraiser for student scholarships, and about a dozen nonprofits and community organizations, such as Boy Scouts, East Pasco YMCA, and Relay for Life of Zephyrhills, to name a few.

The chamber director acknowledged funds raised from this year’s BBQ event “is going to be very minimal,” but expressed confidence there’ll be enough in the coffers to continue the Zephyrhills Chamber of Commerce Scholarship Fund and Citizen of the Month programs.

To help make up for other anticipated funding shortages, Monson said the chamber in February is launching a campaign called “Love Your Non-Profit” that will showcase different organizations and solicit public donations for each.

Said Monson: “We’re going to spotlight the nonprofits that usually get the money (made from Pigz in Z’Hills) and really hope that the public will say, ‘Oh yeah, we recognize they’re not going to be able to get what they’re used to; we can help, too.’”

The BBQ shindig has grown substantially since its debut in 2011 — when it drew about 2,500 patrons.

Well over 10,000 people have attended in recent years at its usual staged location of 5200 Airport Road, across from the Zephyrhills Municipal Airport — including a record-high of about 13,500 attending in 2019.

The momentum carried into the event’s 10th anniversary celebration last January, drawing roughly 11,000 people.

The chamber had hoped to build on the string of successes and find a way to bring some normalcy to the area by holding the festival and all its familiar fixins’, but the recent rise in COVID-19 cases and vaccine delays forced organizers to pivot completely, Monson said.

Expected to be a much smaller turnout this year, the chamber director noted any hybrid festival would be considered “a huge success” if anywhere from 300 to 500 tickets get purchased.

“It’s real disappointing, but we recognize we’re not the only ones going through this, and we will rebound,” Monson said.

There’s confidence brewing that the BBQ extravaganza will get back on track by 2022, however.

That’s because next year’s Pigz in Z’Hills has been selected to host the Florida BBQ Association State Championship.

Monson said the showcase could draw upward of 65 top-notch BBQ teams from around the state, with a purse of at least $10,000 for the winner. The event is tentatively scheduled for Feb. 26, 2022.

“It will bring in competitors that we’ve never had before from throughout the state, which is exciting,” said Monson.

The chamber leader also noted that the event will be a solid marketing tool for Zephyrhills, at large.

She expects that television exposure and coverage of the event will offer a great opportunity “to showcase our little city.”

For more information, call 813-782-1913, or email .

Published January 13, 2021

New Main Street projects expected

Main Street Zephyrhills Inc. coordinator Paxton McCullough officially introduced herself, recently, to the board of the Zephyrhills Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) .

Paxton McCullough is the new Main Street Zephyrhills Inc. coordinator. She recently outlined some of the work she’s begun, since joining the organization a month ago. (Courtesy of Main Street Zephyrhills Inc.)

McCullough has held the post for about a month, and gave the CRA board members an update on what has been happening within the 501c3 nonprofit, which promotes storefronts and organizes large events in the historic district, and runs chiefly along Fifth Avenue.

Some early initiatives include:

  • Elect Main Street board members and finalize event committees
  • Look into the feasibility of hiring a brand consultant, to assist with social media and marketing efforts
  • Assess the organization’s business membership and renewal efforts
  • Continue to foster relationships with The Greater Zephyrhills Chamber of Commerce

McCullough was asked to assess how downtown businesses have been coping recently through the COVID-19 pandemic.

She observed: “I mean, spirits are a little bit low, but I want to say things are loosening up a little bit. People are more open to going downtown and going out to lunch and getting out in stores more, so hopefully that’ll help, but I know they’re definitely struggling.”

Gail Hamilton, the director of the CRA, commended McCullough for her efforts thus far.

McCullough is  recent graduate from the University of Georgia.

She replaced Anna Stutzriem, who resigned in March after more than two years on the post.

“I’ll say, she’s doing a wonderful job,” Hamilton told the CRA board. “She’s been here for a month and just really dug in, and I expect wonderful things. You’ll be surprised at some of the projects we’re going to undertake once the (Main Street) board gets seated.”

The Main Street coordinator is the organization’s lone city-funded employee position.

Published September 09, 2020

Bilirakis fields questions, addresses concerns

U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis fielded questions from constituents during a virtual town hall-style meeting hosted by The Greater Zephyrhills Chamber of Commerce.

The Aug. 6 online “Breakfast with Bilirakis” meeting, allowed the Republican congressman to share various updates from Washington D.C. It also provided a forum for Bilirakis, who represents Florida’s 12th Congressional District, to listen to concerns and questions from East Pasco residents.

One pressing question involved the timeline of when the next COVID-19 stimulus package is coming.

U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis participated in a virtual town hall meeting hosted by The Greater Zephyrhills Chamber of Commerce on Aug. 6. He discussed COVID-19 relief, among other topics. (File)

Bilirakis attributed the lack of action by Congress to partisan politics between Democrats and Republicans. He pinned the bulk of the blame on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat.

“This could be done within a matter of hours if we take the politics out of it, but we all know it’s not realistic,” the Republican congressman said.

“Speaker Pelosi does not negotiate. Right now she feels like she’s winning politically, and she’s not putting the people who are really hurting, that need this assistance first, but, I think she’s getting closer and closer (to coming around).”

Republicans have called for $1 trillion in spending; Democrats have a $3.5 trillion plan.

One key difference in the plans involves the Democrats’ proposal to provide funding for large cities, such as New York and Chicago.

Bilirakis doesn’t agree with that.

His reasoned those cities, among others, “have been fiscally irresponsible for years and years and years,” long before the COVID-19 pandemic.

He put it like this: “Nothing against Chicago or New York City, I love those cities, but the management has been terrible, the leadership has been terrible in those particular cities recently.”

Even with ongoing differences between the two parties, Bilirakis is confident a second stimulus package will pass.

President Donald Trump has threatened executive action to break Congress’s impasse, Bilirakis said.

“I don’t blame him — people are suffering; they need help now,” the congressman said.

Bilirakis also is certain federal unemployment benefits will be extended, but doesn’t expect it be at the $600 per week rate.

“It might be a little bit of a different version,” Bilirakis said. He has co-sponsored a bill to ensure people receiving unemployment will not receive an amount that exceeds the amount they were getting paid while employed.

 

Need to help, but also to watch federal debt

Bilirakis also addressed the status of the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) business loan program.

More funds will likely be added to program, he said, but he noted there is still $100 billion in loans available.

The next round of PPP loans should be geared toward businesses with 25 employees or fewer, he said. There also should be more flexibility to help the restaurants that are hurting, he added.

Bilirakis acknowledged the original $669-billion federal business loan program was put together hastily, during a state of emergency. Its language allowed some corporations, even charter schools, to take advantage of loans not meant for them.

“It was a successful program and we helped out a lot of businesses, but I think we’ve learned that we need to narrow the scope because a lot of big businesses took advantage,” he said.

The lawmaker expressed sympathy for struggling restaurants and other small businesses, too: “My goodness, you have these restaurants that have been around forever and they’ve survived wars, depressions, recessions, and now they’re closing up for good, and we just can’t have that.”

At the same, as COVID-19-related spending packages are implemented, Bilirakis emphasized the need to be concerned about the government’s increasing debt. The national debt rose to $26 trillion for the first time in June.

“I know this is a crisis and we’ve got to help folks, but we’ve got to be cognizant of this national debt, because we’re passing it on to our children, our grandchildren, our great-grandchildren in some cases,” Bilirakis said.

One constituent questioned Bilirakis on why the Trump administration has denied new or first-time applications for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, despite a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that blocked the president’s attempt to end DACA.

The DACA program grants protection from deportation of undocumented children brought to the country by immigrants.

Bilirakis responded: “I can’t explain it. Obviously, I’m not responsible for it, but what we can do is pressure the administration and (Attorney General) Bill Barr, to make sure that they follow up.”

The lawmaker expressed support for a single-subject immigration bill to protect DACA youth, but not one with amendments that offer similar protections for undocumented adults and illegal aliens — an ongoing point of contention between Democrats and Republicans.

With that, Bilirakis believes immigrant children will be granted protection at some point, but doesn’t foresee a piece of legislation to pass before the end of the year.

Said Bilirakis, “We should be passing a DACA bill to protect these kids, but the problem is everything’s political. They did nothing wrong themselves and they should not be punished. They only know the United States of America, in most cases.”

Another constituent probed the congressman about what types of COVID-19 safety measures have been put forth for active military and veterans.

Bilirakis explained the Tampa’s James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital and satellite facilities (like those in New Port Richey and Zephyrhills) are offering virtual appointments for primary care and other services. The program is “going pretty well,” he said.

Bilirakis said he is pushing to reopen or expand services at outpatient clinics for veterans, amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We’re trying to give them as much access as possible to health care,” he said.

Published August 12, 2020