Okeechobee not ready to declare state of emergency

OKEECHOBEE — At an emergency meeting on March 15, the Okeechobee County commissioners decided not to declare a local state of emergency (LSE) … yet.

County Administrator Robbie Chartier said while Okeechobee County does not have any cases of the COVID-19 virus, declaring a LSE would make the county eligible for reimbursement for expenses. “The Heartland area does not have any cases, but we are surrounded by it,” said Mrs. Chartier.

She said of the 18 counties that have declared local state of emergency, six have no confirmed cases.

Three commissioners, however, were concerned that declaring a state of emergency could cause more public panic.

“Commissioner Hazellief and I were at the Agric-Civic Center when the Okeechobee Youth Livestock Show board decided to cancel the youth livestock show,” he said. “The disappointment in the air was palpable.”

He said children who have worked on their livestock projects for nearly a year were heartbroken.

“Whatever decisions we make up here, we need to make sure we consider how it affects everybody,” he said.

“I don’t understand how from 2008 to 2016, we have had four very dangerous viruses and we didn’t see the whole United States shut down,” said Commissioner Bryant Culpepper.

“This unprecedented panic is unbelievable,” he said.

“We were elected to look after the people of Okeechobee County,” said Commissioner Hazellief. “It’s one of our jobs to assure them we are doing everything possible to keep them safe, but you can’t put your head in the sand like an ostrich. You’ve got to live your life,” he said.

Mr. Hazellief said if there is a confirmed case in Okeechobee County, the commission can hold another emergency meeting on a few hours’ notice.

“I have enough confidence in this board,” he said. “If you need the meeting, we’re available.”

“Our people are being very proactive, washing their hands,” he added.

“My mother got out of the hospital on Friday,” said Commissioner Goodbread, his voice shaking. “I put her in the nursing home and now I can’t go see her, and she doesn’t know why.”

Commissioner Kelly Owens, who attended the meeting via telephone, argued in favor of declaring a LSE in order to be proactive, so if the county should incur costs due to the COVID-19 virus, the county would be eligible for reimbursement by any federal funds that are available.

“On average, we have eight people die in Okeechobee County each year from flu,” said Commissioner Hazellief. “This is not the end of the times.”

“The panic level from the national media has driven this out of whack,” said Commission Chairman Terry Burroughs. “All I am asking for is for us to be recognized by the state so it alleviates a little bit of pressure.”

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