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Walton County eases COVID-19 emergency restrictions

Jim Thompson
Northwest Florida Daily News

DeFUNIAK SPRINGS – Walton County commissioners have ratcheted back the local state of emergency they first declared in March in connection with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Initially aimed primarily at limiting large gatherings, declaring the local state of emergency also put the county in a position to access state and federal funds to assist in addressing issues created by the worldwide pandemic.

More (March 2020):LOCAL CORONAVIRUS PHOTOS: Beaches closed down in Destin and South Walton

At their Tuesday meeting, which came a couple of weeks after Gov. Ron DeSantis issued an order noting that the state had moved into Phase 3 of its COVID-19 response — which included language noting that "(n)o COVID-19 emergency ordinance may prevent an individual from working or from operating a business" — commissioners took action in connection with sections of the local state of emergency declaration that restricted selected gatherings to no more than 50 people.

Under the changes approved Tuesday, those restrictions were removed, with the associated message that local private event organizers will be responsible for instituting whatever COVID-19-related restrictions they deem necessary to put in place — masks, social distancing or other measures —  for their events.

People enjoy a day in Seaside earlier this year as the beachside Walton County community reopened its commercial district after a COVID-19-related closure. On Tuesday, Walton County commissioners approved changes to the local state of emergency declaration under which organizers of local events will have to determine what COVID-19-related restrictions they want in place.

More:Walton County to buy rapid-test equipment to address COVID-19

The commission action came after Walton County Administrator Larry Jones, noting the local state of emergency provisions regarding limiting crowds to a maximum of 50 people, advised commissioners, "We might best be served by allowing things to open as they choose, advising event organizers to be careful and let them make their decisions about how many people they want, what social distancing they want, what protections they want to put in place per event."

A man suns himself in a parking spot along Scenic Highway 98 in Miramar Beach in April during the beach closure in Walton County.

Specifically, the unanimous action taken Tuesday by commissioners removes provisions that had limited attendance in connection with beach vending including bonfires, special events held on the beach, and outdoor events subject to county permitting, as well as events at county parks and the county's Eagle Springs Golf Course.

More:CORONAVIRUS: Walton commissioners allow beach vendors to return to work

"Those (local restrictions) were basically put in (the local state of emergency declaration) to be in line with the governor's executive orders ...," said Commission Chairman Bill Chapman as commissioners voted in favor of changing the declaration.

In other COVID-19-related developments at Tuesday's meeting, Holly Holt, administrator of the Florida Department of Health in Walton County, told commissioners that the department is preparing for whatever vaccine might be coming in connection with the coronavirus. As of early Wednesday, COVID had claimed 29 lives in Walton County and 1,910 county residents had at one point tested positive for the virus.

Holt said department leaders are training the staff in administering vaccinations, and also are seeking help from local hospitals and emergency medical services “so we’re not left hanging when it (a vaccine) comes."

Holt also told commissioners that the rapid-testing machines and associated test strips for which the county had allocated almost $340,000 in federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) funding had not yet arrived. The three rapid-testing machines were ordered on Sept. 2, Holt told commissioners.

With regard to the test kits, Holt told commissioners the vendor recently told her the items should be delivered within four weeks.

Also in connection with the county's response to the pandemic, commissioners agreed unanimously to allocate $175,000 of the county's CARES Act dollars to Covenant Care, a home healthcare company operating in the county, for the purchase of 50 remote patient monitoring systems and to cover the costs of a nurse practitioner and a licensed clinical social worker.

According to information presented to commissioners, the systems — which will be used in support of "the highest-risk COVID patients in Walton County" — will allow Covenant Care to monitor the patients at home, and give those patients around-the-clock communication with Covenant Care.

Covenant Care will be working with Ascension Sacred Heart Emerald Coast Hospital to identify patients in need of in-home support in dealing with COVID-19.