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Coronavirus: 'Never a decision made in a vacuum,' Volusia County manager says

News-Journal - 3/26/2020

The ever-changing coronavirus outbreak made necessary several impactful emergency decisions about Volusia County's operations. And that was just this week.

Among them: Should beach ramps close? For how long? And what about playgrounds and boat ramps? Do the beaches stay open when they've closed in many parts of Florida?

While the buck stops with Volusia County Manager George Recktenwald, in a phone interview Wednesday, he said he doesn't make decisions alone.

"There's never a decision made in a vacuum," said Recktenwald. "We all work together."

The News-Journal is providing this important health information for free. Help support our journalism. SUBSCRIBE HERE.[READ MORE: Coronavirus: No one being screened at Volusia airports]

[READ MORE: Coronavirus: Volusia's Beach ramps to remain closed; doctors say there's 'some level' of community spread]

By "all," Recktenwald means through an information chain that begins within the county's more than 50 departments and ends with him.

Aside from getting input from County Council members and department heads, Recktenwald said there is a manager's advisory group that keeps the conversation and information sharing flowing. That board includes County Attorney Mike Dyer, Emergency Manager Jim Judge, Director of Public Protection Joe Pozzo, County Medical Director Dr. Peter Springer and Deputy County Manager Suzanne Konchan.

Recktenwald said most information during an emergency comes to him through the emergency management department. He said the advisory group is "set up for all disasters, really." Those situations are most commonly weather-related.

But the coronavirus emergency is no hurricane.

So the information being shared daily and the key people in those conferences are different than a typical emergency.

In this situation, Recktenwald said he and his team get daily updates and consultation from the Florida Department of Health in Volusia County.

He also participates in daily conference calls with local medical professionals.

So who's on those calls and how is the information shared?

Department of Health spokeswoman Holly Smith said in an email that all information regarding the daily updates are shared, verbally, with the county manager and staff.

Smith stated that on the call are representatives of the area's COVID-19 Task Force which includes representatives of the 9-1-1 communications center, Volusia County Medical Examiner Dr. James Fulcher, Medical Director Springer, representatives from the Volusia County EMS system, Volusia County Fire Services, AdventHealth and Halifax Health Medical Center, and Judge.

Smith, who does not participate in the calls, listed the type of information shared on the call. It includes the current status of personal protective equipment, how fast the supply is being used, the status of the supply chains, staffing, call number status, emergency room status, bed census and ventilator status.

The health department also shares any new guidance, executive orders or important info and use it to plan for "what may come down the road," Smith wrote.

Recktenwald said he is also in constant communication with Sheriff Mike Chitwood and the Volusia County School District.

"Sometimes we take routes that we know will protect us in the future," said Recktenwald. "It all gets played out legally as well."

He pointed to the beaches decision.

"If you take away the parking, you essentially have closed the beach," the manager said.

Occupancy at beachside hotels dropped drastically soon after, and Recktenwald acknowledged that fact.

"Had that not happened, we may have had to take other directions. But that's a perfect example, too," said Recktenwald, adding he was simultaneously getting information from the hotel industry, the Daytona Regional Chamber of Commerce, and the Daytona Beach Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. "So I could also factor that into the decision. It might've been a different decision if they were just packed, but we knew they weren't."

Flagler County beaches were definitely not packed on Thursday. An emergency order was signed Sunday to close the beach and all park facilities.

On Thursday, county spokeswoman Julie Murphy said the government is using assets like its FireFlight helicopter to monitor beach and resort areas.

"For the most part, it appears people are adhering to the Emergency Order to close the beaches and parks," said Sheriff Rick Staly. "For those that are not following the orders, we are patrolling the beaches on an ATV and educating beachgoers of the Emergency Order."

Back in Volusia, while last Thursday beaches up the coast were well attended, this week, beachgoers had plenty of room to spread out and follow Centers for Disease Control guidelines on social distancing.

[READ MORE: Coronavirus cautions leave Flagler's beaches deserted, Volusia's sparse]

Still, earlier this week, Daytona Beach City Commissioners -- six out of seven of them -- felt the county should shut the beach.

At a special meeting Tuesday night, the majority of commissioners agreed to send a resolution to the county urging that the beach be legally fenced off.

"I think we should bite the bullet and do what we have to in order to flatten the curve," said City Commissioner Aaron Delgado, who led the charge on closing the beach. "We may have to do some things that are unpopular."

That decision remains up to the County Council, said the county manager on Wednesday.

"I can tell you, we're listening to what the city is saying," said Recktenwald. "But, like a lot of discussions, I'm looking at the data. I'm looking at the pictures, and I can see that it's essentially empty today."

As the weekend approaches, the manager said he might have to make different choices, including weighing whether to block parking lots nearby. But he said they will definitely get the word out that people need to find other things to do.

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