In a stunning reversal last week, Florida governor Ron DeSantis ordered Floridians to restrict nonessential travel and stay home for the next month to reduce the spread of the coronavirus. Only a week earlier, DeSantis had berated the “stay at home” executive orders signed by 33 governors as “inappropriate,” given the likely dire disruption of Florida’s tourist-driven economy. But as Covid-19 cases and deaths in Florida mounted—by Thursday, over 11,000 people had contracted the virus, and 191 had died—pressure mounted to implement state-wide measures. DeSantis relented.
Here in Palm Beach, town officials sighed with relief. More than two weeks earlier, Mayor Gail Coniglio had sent a letter to the first-term Republican governor, urging him to take “bold, decisive measures” and restrict nonessential travel throughout the state, which now ranks sixth in the U.S. in Covid-19 cases. There was no reply.
In fact, local officials didn’t wait for state edicts or federal aid. Early in the crisis, Palm Beach began conducting its own local war against the virus, distributing health-and-safety guidance online; mobilizing the support of local businesses and other “influencers” to accept economically painful closures of hotels, bars, and restaurants; and implementing a 9 pm to 6 am curfew, along with other restrictions that many other localities only later adopted.
In interviews, doctors, businesspeople, and community leaders said that Palm Beach’s early action had already saved lives. So far, the island of some 10,000 residents, which swells to as many as 30,000 in the January-to-April season, has had 15 confirmed Covid-19 cases and two deaths. Whenever the pandemic peaks here, the measures enacted could save hundreds more.
What Palm Beach has done—and Florida did not—demonstrates not only what a small community can do in an emergency but also what cannot be done without state and federal approval and assistance. While Palm Beach is wealthy—the island’s average per capita income in 2017 was $37,100, $7,262 higher than the rest of Florida—wealth alone hasn’t made the difference here. Rather, public-health and emergency-management experts credit the persistence of a small group of well-informed, dedicated local officials—many of them unpaid—with the island’s proactive stance.
“Palm Beach responded early and effectively to the threat,” said David W. Dodson, an internist and infectious-disease expert in neighboring West Palm Beach, who worked on the 2001 anthrax outbreak in Florida and has been helping Palm Beach try to contain the virus. Dodson and others credit the town’s mayor, town manager, fire and police chiefs, and its five-person town council. Many cited, in particular, the persistence of Margaret “Maggie” Zeidman, a former director of nursing at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City and three-term council member. Zeidman first became aware of Covid-19’s potential impact in February after talking to her daughter, Jessica, a physician who directs the residency program for primary care at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. After learning that the hospital had already prepared protocols for managing the threat, she became convinced that the island where she has lived for 23 years needed to respond.
Some local agencies had already quietly made plans. With over 38 years of experience, Darrel Donatto, the fire-rescue chief and director of emergency management, said that as he tracked the virus from Wuhan to Seattle in late January, he began reviewing his department’s dispatch procedures to ensure that his 16 firefighters at three fire stations could respond rapidly to 911 calls.
Zeidman said that it was natural for Americans to underestimate the threat. “In the beginning, it was natural to suffer from magical thinking,” she said. But Covid-19’s virulence and contagiousness in Asia and Europe spurred her into action. Her concern was shared by another activist town council member—Bobbie Lindsay, a former biology major at Cornell who had been talking to friends in Seattle, the first U.S. city with widespread contagion. She, too, was concerned about Palm Beach, especially given its demographics. While the average Floridian’s age is 42.4, the Palm Beach community’s median age is 68. Palm Beachers were highly vulnerable.
On February 25, four days before the first Covid-19 patient in America would die, Zeidman shared her concerns with Kirk Blouin, a transplanted New Yorker who ran Palm Beach’s police force before becoming town manager. Blouin quickly grasped the unprecedented danger. So did Mary Robosson, president of the influential Palm Beach Civic Association. In late February, the association financed and distributed a video on its popular website that explained the threat and how best to combat it with what became the CDC’s mantra: wash your hands, don’t touch your face, cover your cough, and practice social distancing. Zeidman appears in the video demonstrating her nurse’s hand-washing skills—vigorous scrubbing, while singing “Happy Birthday” twice.
In quiet meetings with town officials, business owners, and other civic leaders, Zeidman and Lindsay urged restaurants and bars to close and pressed for the enactment of a curfew. Predictably, in a town so heavily dependent on tourism, they met resistance. Palm Beach’s economy depends on the 100 million people who arrive in Florida each year, on 195 planes each day, generating jobs for roughly 50 percent of Florida’s work force and $85.9 billion annually in statewide revenue. But in a public-safety meeting in mid-March, a consensus developed on the need for tougher measures. Three days later, Blouin, using the town’s emergency authority, imposed a 9 pm to 6 am curfew and closed the beaches. Days later, the town council approved his emergency measures.
Charities and nonprofits began canceling their annual fundraising benefits—the bedrock of Palm Beach’s social life and philanthropy. On March 16, Palm Beach County’s second-largest employer, The Breakers—the historic, 538-room, Italian Renaissance-style hotel with ten restaurants, two 18-hole golf courses, 12 boutiques, and 2,200 employees—announced that it would close two days later, until May 8, to keep its staff and guests safe. Many of the town’s most popular restaurants soon followed. Lindsay sent Paul Leone, the hotel’s president and chief executive officer, a “hero-gram.”
“It was really an easy decision,” said Piper Quinn, who owns three popular restaurants and employs 250 employees on the island and West Palm Beach. “We didn’t want to endanger employees for revenue,” he said.
Palm Beach, President Trump’s official residence, was among the first Florida towns to adopt a “shelter-in-place” order that has kept residents home except for essential trips. Blouin, the town manager, called it “tough love.”
The crisis has highlighted the importance of rapid, clear communications with town residents to secure buy-in for the sweeping restrictions and economically devastating closures. The town website issues a daily Covid-19 Alert. The civic association, too, sends out bulletins. The local town paper, the so-called “Shiny Sheet,” which has traditionally reported on benefit dinners, property sales, and island gossip, has meticulously tracked the virus and local government’s response.
Laurel Baker, executive director of the Chamber of Commerce, worries about the affect of closures on local business, especially the smaller “mom-and-pop” stores and services that often depend more heavily than their corporate counterparts on income generated during the January-to-Easter season. For many, she said, an entire year’s revenue has largely vanished. But she, too, takes pride in the island’s rapid response. “Thanks to officials like Kirk and Maggie, we’re been way ahead of other towns.”
Jeff Greene, a billionaire Palm Beach developer and Democrat who ran unsuccessfully for the Senate in 2010 and for governor in 2018, said that he feared the island and Florida’s economy wouldn’t quickly rebound. Businesspeople make 30 percent to 40 percent of their revenue during the period between March and Easter, and 100 percent of their profit during the four-month season. He wondered how many owners could forgo a year’s income. Even after reopening, would cash-strapped consumers be able to flock back to the town’s restaurants, shops, and bars?
Such concerns explain the reluctance of DeSantis and Florida’s mayors to impose potentially life-saving restrictions. “The governor and the mayor of neighboring West Palm Beach have a more complicated calculation than we did,” Zeidman said. “Florida has 22 million people and over 1,350 miles of coastline to consider; and unlike Palm Beach, West Palm Beach—on the Florida mainland—has a sizeable homeless population and many more people living paycheck-to-paycheck,” she said. “You need a system in place to care for them. They couldn’t jump as quickly as we could.”
Nor can Palm Beach solve the national shortages of personal protective equipment—masks, gloves, and sterilizers—that plague so many cities across the nation. Without enough ventilators, many Covid-19 patients will die. And despite DeSantis’s ostensible close ties to Trump, Florida has received neither enough ventilators nor the testing capability that state officials say are sorely needed. As of April 1, Palm Beach County ranked last in testing capacity, the Palm Beach Daily News reported. “We’re flying blind in this pandemic down here without testing,” Dodson warned.
Palm Beach, with no hospital on the island, can do little about such shortages. But it has a close-knit community accustomed to pulling together in hurricanes and other emergencies, led by a cadre of experienced, dedicated local officials. The five town-council members, for instance, are elected but receive no salary. Zeidman hopes that other smaller communities will do what Palm Beach has done without waiting for federal guidance, though it is still not clear that such measures will flatten Covid-19’s curve.
“This is going to be a two-month long, category-5 hurricane,” said fire chief Donatto. Crisis mode may, in fact, last longer. In June, just as the pandemic here in Florida should decline, the annual hurricane season begins. Early season forecasters are predicting an unusually active season—with 16 named storms, including 8 hurricanes, 4 of them major.