Gov. Ron DeSantis took a different approach Thursday during the latest of his on-site news conferences related to the coronavirus pandemic.
In recent weeks, he usually has led off with an announcement about the latest expansion of the state’s COVID-19 vaccine program — to more Publix supermarkets or to a senior community or to a house of worship.
On Thursday, though, a fired-up governor took aim at the Biden administration, after The Miami Herald reported that the administration was considering travel restrictions for Americans involving states that were having a high incidence of the B.1.1.7 coronavirus variant that is considered more contagious. Those states include Florida.
DeSantis called that possibility absurd, unconstitutional, unwise and unjust, and said it “would purely be a political attack against the people of Florida” that was not based on science, and “a ridiculous, but very damaging, farce.”
“Any attempt to restrict or lock down Florida by the federal government would be an attack on our state, done purely for political purposes,” DeSantis said.
“If anyone tries to harm Floridians or target us, we will respond very swiftly,” DeSantis said during his news conference in Port Charlotte. “We will oppose it 100%.”
Regarding the talk of Florida restrictions, a White House spokesperson said: “To be clear, there have been no decisions made around additional public health measures for domestic travel safety. The administration is continuing to discuss recommendations across the travel space, but no specific decisions are under consideration.”
During his news conference, DeSantis cited various data indicating that Florida’s per-capita incidence of coronavirus cases, hospitalizations and fatalities in recent months was less than many other states; that the Florida COVID-19 emergency department visits and hospitalizations appear to be decreasing in recent weeks; and that Florida has administered a relatively high number of vaccinations for residents ages 65 and older, compared with other states.
What the governor didn’t say was that, early on in the pandemic, Florida did impose restrictions on travel by residents of some Northeastern states.
On Twitter, Florida’s two Republican U.S. senators joined the Republican governor in attacking the idea of travel restrictions.
Sen. Rick Scott called it “crazy” and an “absurd idea” that would “only hurt Florida’s working families whose livelihoods depend on tourism dollars.”
Sen. Marco Rubio called it “unreal” and “clearly unconstitutional.”
Additionally, Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association President Carol Dover issued a statement opposing any travel restrictions.
“The Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association represents 10,000 members across the state who are trying to rebuild following a devastating 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Dover’s statement said. “While we believe public safety is paramount, our members have done everything in their power to go above and beyond sanitation and safety procedures to keep guests and employees safe during this unprecedented time.”
Dover said the association is concerned “about the harmful consequences of potential travel bans. Instituting travel restrictions to Florida is not only bad policy, but would erase the small steps towards recovery that Florida hotels and restaurants have made.”
Dover said Florida “relies on visitors to keep people employed, fund state and local government, and remain state income-tax-free. We are still significantly down, because of conference and business travel being down. To restrict individuals and their families from coming to Florida would absolutely kill the economic progress we have made in recent months.”
Dover said that, “as more vaccines are distributed, we are confident that even more people will want to travel to Florida, and we are more than ready and eager to welcome them.”
County transit director retiring
Another county department head will be leaving his job soon.
Space Coast Area Transit Director Scott Nelson will retire on March 2.
Brevard County Library Director Jeff Thompson retired the end of December. And County Attorney Eden Bentley has announced that she will be retiring on Nov. 1, 2021.
Nelson has 35 years of experience in public transportation, beginning as a transit operator at Kitsap Transit in Bremerton, Washington. After a series of promotions, Nelson ended his career there as operations manager.
He joined Space Coast Area Transit in 2007 as its manager of operations and maintenance. When longtime Transit Director Jim Liesenfelt became assistant Brevard County manager for the community services group in 2017, Nelson became transit director.
During Nelson’s tenure, Space Coast Area Transit expanded, adding two paratransit routes and one fixed route, with three more fixed routes being added in April.
Space Coast Area Transit reestablished trolley service on the Cape Canaveral-Cocoa Beach route. A third trolley is on order for the South Beach route in August.
Among other recent and upcoming improvements:
- The system’s first hybrid buses are on order, with planned delivery in July.
- The paratransit fleet was upgraded, with seven new buses in service.
- New bus shelters were installed at various stops.
- The system is in the process of installing automatic vehicle locating passenger counters, livestream video and new paratransit scheduling software.
- Passengers soon will have access to mobile fare payment and Wi-Fi on the buses.
- The system is implementing an “intelligent transportation system” that will allow bus riders waiting at a bus stop to determine arrival time for their bus using a phone app, based on the real-time location of the bus along the route.
- The system also will have automatic stop announcements to comply with Americans with Disabilities Act guidelines; automatic passenger counting; and assistance for route planning to know where the busiest stops are.
The bus service in 2020 was awarded Florida Public Transit Association’s annual innovation and creativity award for the “Ride with Jim” program, in which residents ride the bus with county officials, then talk transit issues over coffee and bagels.
“I am so proud of our dedicated and committed staff and drivers who have done an amazing job serving through the COVID pandemic,” Nelson said, in announcing his planned retirement.
Nelson said he is grateful for the strong support of the County Commission, the county manager’s office, the Florida Department of Transportation, transit employees, community stakeholders and riders.
The county currently is recruiting for Nelson’s successor.
Commissioners laud Scott Ellis
County commissioners on Tuesday honored recently retired Brevard County Clerk of Courts Scott Ellis with a resolution, introduced by Commissioner John Tobia.
Ellis served as clerk of courts from 2001 to 2010 and from 2013 to 2020, retiring at the end of December. Ellis previously served as a Brevard County commissioner from 1992 to 1996.
And three of the commissioners also added in their own comments, beyond what was in the resolution.
County Commission Chair Rita Pritchett said Ellis always has been “feisty. You kind of add a little bit of horseradish to everything. And you’ve always been incredibly kind and respectful to me. I think you’re a good man, with a good heart, and I appreciate you.”
Vice Chair Kristine Zonka said she anticipated that Ellis would remain active in government issues “because you care too much about this community” and is a “watchdog of the taxpayers.”
She also noted that Ellis is a longtime Little League baseball coach.
Commissioner Curt Smith thanked Ellis for his work with youths, as well as an advocate for animals.
“This guy, as tough as he tries to be, he’s got a heart as big as this room,” Smith said.
“And a houseful of dogs,” Ellis added.
The resolution honors Ellis for being “an advocate for transparency, accountability and efficiency in government.”
The resolution was approved 4-0, with Commissioner Bryan Lober abstaining in what Lober described as “an abundance of caution,” because of a potential conflict of interest. Lober’s wife, Rebecca Lober, is an in-house counsel for the clerk of courts office.
Tourism subcommittee chairs appointed
Recently elected Brevard County Tourist Development Council Chairman Tom Hermansen, a hotel owner, has appointed the chairs of the TDC’s five subcommittees for 2021.
The subcommittee chairs must be members of the nine-person Tourist Development Council, an advisory board to the Brevard County Commission.
The new subcommittee chairs are:
- Hotelier Bob Baugher for the Marketing Committee. Baugher succeed Puneet “PK” Kapur, a hotel manager, who resigned from TDC during 2020.
- Hotel general manager Julie Braga for the Beach Improvement Committee. She succeeds Hermansen.
- Media company and event business owner Giles Malone for the Capital Facilities Committee. Malone also served in that position in 2020, and had been TDC chairman as well.
- Brevard Zoo Executive Director Keith Winsten for the Sports Committee. He succeeds Brian Anderson, who left the TDC at the end of 2020. Anderson had been a Palm Bay City Council member but did not seek reelection.
- West Melbourne City Council member Andrea Young for the Cultural Committee. She also served in that position in 2020.
TDC members appoint the other members of the subcommittees, with one nomination per member. The subcommittee chairs do not appoint anyone to the subcommittees they chair.
Hermansen named three former TDC members to subcommittee posts for 2021 — Deborah Green for the Beach Improvement Committee, Jim Ridenour for the Cultural Committee and Tom Williamson for the Marketing Committee. Hermansen also appointed himself to the Capital Fcilites Committee.
Baugher named former TDC member Laurilee Thompson as a Beach Improvement Committee member. He also named retired Space Coast Office of Tourism Deputy Director Bonnie King to the Cultural Committee. King also has served as Space Coast film commissioner.
The TDC is the advisory board to the Brevard County Commission on tourism-related issues, including the spending of money generated by Brevard County’s 5% tourist development tax on hotel rooms and other short-term rentals.
That tax raised $16.02 million in the budget year that ended Sept. 30, 2019. But that figure fell to $13.07 million in the budget year that ended Sept. 30, 2020, as the pandemic significantly reduced tourism since March. The Office of Tourism is budgeting $11 million in hotel tax collections for the current budget year.
The largest share of the hotel tax money — 47% — is targeted for promotion and advertising of Space Coast tourism in an effort to attract more tourists. The rest of the money is allocated this way: 25% for beach improvement, 14% for capital facilities, 5% for the Brevard Zoo, 4% for cultural events, 3% for Space Coast Stadium and 2% for visitor information centers.
Dave Berman is government editor at FLORIDA TODAY.
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