A breakout of COVID-19 among Manatee County staff closed down the County administration building last week. The spread of the disease claimed the lives of two Manatee County government workers.
The Bradenton administration building reopens Monday at 8 a.m. While Manatee officials on Friday initially said in a tweet that mask-wearing would be mandatory at that point, a press release sent out this weekend said otherwise. Face masks will be optional both for employees and visitors to the facility.
County Administrator Scott Hopes said the shift happened after the Health Department in Manatee concluded the strain of the virus in the building was not infecting vaccinated individuals. But he stressed the importance of employees and visitors following COVID-19 protocols if they had not received a shot.
“I would prefer not to have any more employee funerals,” he told Florida Politics.
Hopes said alarms went off in Manatee government after five individuals working in the IT department tested positive for COVID-19 within a two-week time frame. Two of those individuals died.
“When you have that many cases, and you have a 40% fatality rate, you have to worry,” said Hopes, an epidemiologist. After the second employee died on Thursday, Hopes said the decision was made to close the building on Friday, and initially to say masks would be required when it reopened.
Hopes said it is not yet clear if employees contracted a variant of the virus. But he said both employees killed were in their 50s.
When health officials realized at least one vaccinated IT employee who had been in close contact with infected individuals did not become infected, and all those who contracted it had not been vaccinated, the decision was made to reopen with recommendations for masking and social distancing.
A press release sent out Saturday noted the County Commission last month voted to lift pandemic-related restrictions within the government facility.
“I am reaffirming the Board of County Commissioners’ decision and recommendations made at the May 11, 2021 Commission meeting,” said County Administrator Scott Hopes in the release “The County will continue to provide N95 or equivalent masks for unvaccinated visitors and employees who want to use them when in County buildings.”
But Hopes stressed that the public, particularly those who are not yet vaccinated, should adhere to social distancing and the use of masks for their own protection and those around them.
“Visitors and employees who are fully vaccinated may return to work as usual,” Hopes said. “Unvaccinated individuals are encouraged, but not required, to follow COVID-19 prevention measures, including use of N95 or equivalent masks, which will be available at each entrance, and social distancing.”
Hopes said individuals who are not vaccinated should be conscious of risks.
“If you don’t want to be vaccinated, you can protect yourself from this virus,” he said. “But it requires wearing the right mask, social distancing and washing your hands.”
The concern has not yet passed, Hopes stressed. He received a report this weekend that three employees at Port Manatee had contracted COVID-19 in a short period, though he does not know anything about vaccination status or if anyone was hospitalized.
“It’s unfortunate, but the virus is still with us,” he said.