Manatee County commissioners vote to rescind curfew order

Commissioners of Manatee County voted Tuesday morning to end a temporary curfew order that quickly became a hot button issue.

The curfew suspended all non-essential travel from 11 p.m. and 5 a.m. and went into effect April 3. Since then, county leaders faced backlash from the ACLU and residents alike. On Tuesday morning, Commissioner Whisenant Trace made a motion to drop the curfew.

"It's pretty apparent the governor is opening up [the state]," she said. Commissioner Steve Jonsson seconded the motion.

"The sheriff has told us in three meetings that he is not enforcing the curfew," said Commissioner Vanessa Baugh. "There are no results we can look at. I don't see where the curfew has any purpose. It's in the governor's order. We aren't supposed to be out anyway."

The motion passed 4-3.

Manatee County Public Safety Director Jacob Saur said it's unclear whether the reduced calls to service and traffic crashes are a direct result of the curfew.

Florida Highway Patrol data showed there was a 90-percent reduction in crashes and nearly an 80-percent reduction in the number of EMS calls compared to pre-curfew levels.  

During the public comment portion of Tuesday's meeting, two residents said they were disappointed with the commissioners implementing a curfew in the first place.

“I don't think we need to be taking this personally," Dr. Werther Marciales, program director of internal medicine at Manatee Memorial Hospital, said during Tuesday's meeting. "Some of these reactions are based on fear. As long as we maintain social distancing and washing our hands…we are going to probably be OK. I think we need to do more public teaching."

"I really want you guys to do what is right for everybody. We know the more restrictive measure that we take the better it will be for us and we will be able to open this country soon," Dr Marciales added before the vote took place.

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Saur said there are 433 cases and 33 deaths in the county. There have been at least 18 new hospitalizations since Friday.

"Florida's COVID-19 numbers are flattening where as Manatee's continue to incline," he said. "We've had some hot spots and outbreaks in our long-term care facilities. That has caused an uptick. We've also had the long-term facilities start testing their employees and residents. That's caused an uptick."

On Monday, it was revealed that 25% of Manatee County's cases are residents in long-term care facilities, that's more than 120 of the 433 cases, as of Tuesday morning statistics from the state's Department of Health.

Outside of South Florida, Manatee County has the highest number of COVID-19 cases in assisted living facilities. Two homes account for more than 100 cases in the county. 

A concern among most of the county leaders was the lack of testing for the county.

Commissioner Misty Servia said she was "confused" as to why Vice President Mike Pence said there were enough tests for COVID-19, but meanwhile, county and health officials say there isn't.

"I'm hoping there's just a delay in getting us the tests. I just don't understand that," she said. "There are private individuals who are offering to buy tests, but they're not being provided by the government? Is that accurate?"

She said having enough tests is vital to knowing how and when the county can begin reopening.

Dr. Jennifer Bencie, the head of Manatee County's Department of Health, said, because of this, the department is no longer doing double-testing to determine if a coronavirus patient recovered. She said it takes up too many kits and county health officials are relying on time frames to clear individuals. 

Bencie said the county is ordering their own testing kits. 

Despite a smaller population, Manatee County also has the highest number of COVID-19 victims in the entire Bay Area. Since the council convened on Friday, the number of deaths has risen to 33, up nearly 75 percent. The number of positive cases has also jumped from 280 to 433, a 55 percent increase in those same four days. 

As of now, the county's testing for the coronavirus is at half of a percent. Across Florida, one percent of the population has been tested.

Manatee County officials say the goal is to be at the state level within the next seven days.

The Manatee County commission meeting is underway. A live feed can be viewed below: