Southwest Florida’s new normal after 100 days of coronavirus: Townhall tackles impact on schools, restaurants, social services, health care

With the COVID-19 pandemic now spanning 100 days in Southwest Florida, community leaders say the virus and the resulting economic recession have left a permanent mark on the region.

The News-Press, Naples Daily News and WGCU on Wednesday hosted a virtual town hall with some of the most recognizable thought leaders in our community to see how the region is responding to the crisis.

Beyond the still-growing number of hospitalizations and deaths, the virus and measures to limit its spread will likely result in a long-term change in the way restaurants, schools, health care organizations and social gatherings operate, they say.

Health care

The region’s primary health care organizations, Lee Health and NCH Healthcare System, moved quickly in the early days of the pandemic to limit patient visitations and, at the direction of the state, cancel non-essential surgeries.

Surgical restrictions have since been lifted. And hospitals have now or are in the process of reopening their facilities to visitors.

This despite the fact that both hospital systems are treating record or near-record numbers of COVID-19 patients. As of Wednesday, Lee Health had 141 such patients. NCH had 47.

“We’re going to be monitoring day by day, week by week. And if we have to scale back on the visitation policy or expand it, we’ll do so based on what’s happening,” said Larry Antonucci, president and CEO of Lee Health. “But, in reality, until we have an effective vaccine and a significant portion of the population is immune, we’re going to be living with some restrictions.”

Paul Hiltz, the president and CEO of NCH, believes telehealth will be a permanent “adjunct” service for patients, though he believes many miss in-person interaction.

“The patients miss that hands-on personal interaction with the doctors. I actually think that doctors are missing that too,” Hiltz said. “I don’t think telehealth is going to go away. But I do think the person-in-exam-room medical care is always going to be there.”

Experts are still uncertain if the region will see a second wave of sharp increases in infections and deaths. Antonucci said he worries that the public is starting to become complacent about safety guidelines. 

“I think what we’re seeing now, certainly in Lee County with the increase in cases, is the result of the fact that we’re not wearing masks the way we should be,” he said. “That is anecdotal on my part. When I go out,” he added, “I see maybe 30% of folks wearing masks. And I think it’s going to affect us in the long term.”

Social services

Thousands have lost their jobs in Lee and Collier counties — many likely permanently. This, coupled with increased social isolation, will present new and lasting challenges for the region’s social service organizations.

The region’s social service agencies say COVID-19’s impact on the region has been an uneven one.

Many have kept their jobs, work from home or otherwise have stable incomes and access to health care. But those who have been hardest hit, particularly in lower-income communities, haven’t been as lucky, they say.

Sarah Owen, president and CEO of the Southwest Florida Community Foundation, likened them to different economic “bubbles.”

For those with economic means, she said: “They’re feeling pretty good right now.”

“But then there’s other bubbles that are directly tied to poverty, to certain neighborhoods where people of color live in communities that have really been hard-hit where COVID numbers are higher than the others,” she said. “They’re the essential workers who don’t have the proper protections. And so their lives look dramatically different than some of our other communities.”

A non-scientific poll of town hall viewers asked, “Have you or someone you know experienced food insecurity due to the pandemic,” and 24% said yes.

Owen also noted that unlike other disasters, such as hurricanes, this pandemic won’t be solved with an infusion of outside money. It will be up to local communities to take care of their own, she said. That’s a challenge because many people are hurting economically too.

Maria Jimenez-Lara, CEO of the Naples Children and Education Foundation, said one major way to help your neighbors, other than contacting local volunteer groups, is to simply show them some compassion.

“Be patient with each other,” she said. “Not everybody’s at 100%.”

Schools

Gov. Ron DeSantis recently announced a plan for schools to open at “full capacity” this fall. But his blueprint allows local jurisdictions to decide exactly how that happens.

With that in mind, K-12 and college administrators are now planning how to safely resume studies in the coming academic year. Florida Gulf Coast University has crafted a plan that would allow for in-person, online and hybrid classes, said Mike Martin, president of FGCU.

“I guess the best way to characterize this is flexible,” Martin said. “It recognizes that there’s a great deal that can happen between now and then that we can’t predict. So we simply have to be ready for multiple possibilities.”

K-12 school districts in Lee and Collier counties are similarly considering a continuation or expansion of some online learning. They are also developing plans to temporarily close schools should a student or faculty member develop COVID-19.

“If we have a flare-up, like let’s say at a particular school, you have the ability to close that school, do the learning virtually for a period of time and also allow us to be able to go in and and and clean and sanitize the school before reopening it,” said Greg Adkins, superintendent of the School District of Lee County. 

According to another viewer poll, 91% of respondents said they believe some students will fall behind by not being in the classroom.

Kamela Patton, superintendent of Collier County Public Schools, said schools also must address the fact that some families have no or unreliable internet access. She said her school district is now looking at providing some students with technology allowing them to have wireless service.

School class sizes will also be smaller as long as social distancing guidelines remain in place, she said.

Beyond that, she said teachers and administrators have to be aware of the psychological impact of this pandemic on children. Schools have begun training teachers and administrators in mental health care to help supplement the shortage of school counselors.

“I do believe that this COVID pandemic has certainly taken an emotional toll on parents and students,” she said. “And one of the things that that are part of all school district plans across our state is to be able to be aware of those social-emotional needs of our students when and they come back in the fall.”

Restaurants

Restaurants, a major part of Southwest Florida’s tourism economy, have been especially hard-hit by the COVID pandemic.

DeSantis ordered them closed on March 20, in the middle of peak tourism/snowbird season, ultimately causing untold numbers of them to go out of business. There are 4,000 foodservice licenses in Lee County and roughly 2,500 to 3,000 in Collier.

Anabelle Tometich, a food writer with The News-Press and Naples Daily News, said the economic blow was worsened by the fact that many restaurants have financed themselves by taking on debt.

“And that debt financing is going to catch up to a lot of people, a lot of business owners,” Tometich said.

Many have survived on food deliveries and take-out. Others have taken more innovative approaches, such as cocktails to go and wine tastings conducted via Zoom video conferencing. El Gaucho Inca, in Fort Myers, allows customers to get their menu on their phones by scanning a type of QR barcode.

Restaurants are now reopening. But it’s still uncertain if enough patrons will dine out. While many restaurant workers are wearing masks to lower the risk of transmission, they are not required to do so.

“I think you’re going to see a lot of restaurants maybe take away their happy hours, maybe take away their early dining, adjusting their menus that way,” said Rafael Feliciano, president and CEO of Food Idea Group, a restaurant consulting and public relations firm. “It’s adapt or die. You have to adapt based on who you are, what your identity is.”

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