Sheriff Noel Stephen speaks about COVID-19

OKEECHOBEE — According to Okeechobee County Sheriff Noel Stephen, there is a fine line between keeping the public safe and causing panic, and that is the line he is trying to walk every day.

“It’s tough. The livestock show and the fair committees made hard decisions, but I think in the long run, with everything that is happening, they were the best decisions for the community as a whole. Now, for the kids and their projects, our community has always come together, and before anyone gets too upset, let’s wait and see how it all shakes out in the end. I think the kids will be made whole,” he said.

“There are plans for an online auction, and I think if the kids hustle and solicit their buyers again, telling them there has been a change, they will be made whole.” Sadly, there are some portions of the judging that they’ve lost, he explained, but it couldn’t be helped. Coming from the federal and the state level, the local people had to listen and make a judgment call.

The county jail has stopped all outside visitors of any kind, whether it be clergy, programs or anything else. For the inmates, they had already established a video visitation with family members, so they had very few who came on site because of space and contraband and things like that. The video visitation program is a for-profit program, and the proceeds are used for the inmate welfare fund. He can’t use the money to pay officers’ salaries or things like that, but he can use it to buy things for the inmates so it doesn’t come out of the regular budget. “It’s a two-fold win in my opinion. Most of the inmates have not been convicted of crimes and are awaiting trial, so they still get their visit and contact with their family, and we make a profit — a minimal cost to them and a minimal revenue for us, but it does supplement our budget,” he said.

For those they have to allow into the jail, they ask screening questions and take temperatures. They do this even with staff. The jail has 232 beds, and the population on March 16 was 268. The prison system has contacted them and will not be taking any prisoners until further notice. “Fortunately, I only have one, who is sentenced to DOC (Department of Corrections) that our taxpayers are paying for locally,” he said. The state shares the cost of the others who are rightfully theirs. “So, how long this lockdown goes on, could prove to be a problem.”

When new inmates arrive, they are screened and then isolated from the other prisoners for two weeks. This measure was already in place, he said, but they are being even more careful now.

On the law enforcement side of things, they are preaching “wash your hands,” and now adding social distancing to the mix. They are attempting to get the complainants outside of their homes rather than the way they used to do things in the past when they would have them sit on the couch and make it as comfortable as possible for the complainant. For everyone’s well-being, they are moving outside or to the front porch. All patrol vehicles are sanitized regularly as well. If it continues, they may consider handling some things by telephone when possible.

Fingerprint services for background checks are not being offered at the sheriff’s office at this time in order to minimize non-essential contact.

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