Against a backdrop of falling infection rates, the BOCC voted Wednesday to allow the first community event on county property since coronavirus shutdowns began: the Lower Keys Rotary Club’s haunted house at Big Pine Community Park. The discussion laid very tentative groundwork for discussions of loosening restrictions and for future events in the county.

Commissioner Michelle Coldiron and Rotary President Tommy Ryan advocated in favor of the event, the only remaining activity from the Rotary’s usually-large Fall Festival. 

Ryan ran through the various safety precautions that the Rotary is proposing, including requiring masks and temperature checks for participants and scarers, hand sanitizer stations, socially-distant waiting, plexiglas dividers, and no physical touching. Critically, he also described the event as “family groups of five to 10 walking in the front door and out the back, spending 30 seconds, maybe 60 in the haunted house, total.”

He added, “We’re not using this as a fundraiser this year; we’re just doing it so kids can enjoy it. … I know it’s a hard decision to open up, but small community meetings are necessary now. The kids need something to do. They’ve had six months of nothing to do.”

Mayor Heather Carruthers and County Attorney Bob Shillinger additionally requested the Rotary obtain liability insurance that doesn’t include an exclusion for infectious diseases in place for the event. 

“It looks to me like they’re putting in all the safety requirements,” Coldiron said. “I want to see if we can have support from the commissioners to unwind and allow small events to take place.”

County Health Officer Bob Eadie was impressed with the detailed safety plan. He said, “If you want to go ahead and have an event, they’ve taken all precautions they could; if everything goes perfect, they should be okay.” 

Eadie did find an issue if things don’t go “perfectly” and people bunch up or remove their masks. Assistant County Administrator Kevin Wilson noted that the real issue for him was that approval of this event, even with its abundant safety measures, would set a precedent for other groups and other sites to request similar approvals. He also discussed the impossibility of enforcement at such events. 

Wilson’s point resonated with Commissioner Sylvia Murphy, who felt that the decision to allow the event and open up the queue for future events was illogical.

“We’re putting people at risk for what, 30 seconds, 60 seconds? … As much as I want to say yes, I can’t. I think it’s way too risky,” Murphy said. 

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Commissioner Craig Cates offered his support for the event and for starting to open up other locations.

“People need to get their lives back to normal,” he said. “I think it’s safe, and I think it’s time to move forward.” 

Cates and Coldiron pushed on to suggest potentially opening up small party rooms, common spaces, etc. for small group events like this. 

Eadie disagreed. 

“I had no issue with this event,” the health officer said, “but when you talk about opening up libraries and party rooms, then I do think we have a problem. If you start opening up party rooms, I wouldn’t be saying it’s a good idea.”

Eadie said that across the country, surges in local infections are occurring specifically after intimate events like baby showers, birthday parties and small weddings. He contrasted those with the proposed Big Pine haunted house, where “people are moving and the extremely limited exposure time is less than when you stay in a room for longer amounts of time with people.”

He also urged, “If you’re going to do this (start approving events), it has to be on a case-by-case basis.”

The small exposure time was enough to persuade four of the five commissioners to allow the Big Pine haunted house to proceed, with the caveat that they obtain the correct insurance and maintain all safety precautions. The commissioners and Eadie also clarified that future events would still need to be analyzed individually along the same guidelines to determine if they might safely proceed.

Murphy’s was the sole dissenting vote, and Cates added that this limitation only applied to events on county property. Private events around town are not affected.

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