NEW PORT RICHEY — As the administrator of a county with the Gulf as its western boundary, Pasco County’s Dan Biles is used to the periodic warnings and preparations that come with the warnings of tropical storms and hurricanes.
But, reflecting over the last few days as the coronavirus pandemic began crossing over the county lines. Biles said in an interview dealing with this crisis “is a different kind of beast.”
“With a hurricane you have a few days of preparation, then the storm, and then you go into recovery and two weeks later most people are back to normal in general,” Biles said. “With this, we don’t know the ending because we’re not sure where it’s going.”
Given that lack of certainty, Biles said he has “spent more time than I ever would diving into the data, looking at the models and reports.”
He has also been reading numerous medical articles offering details on the level of contagiousness of the novel coronavirus and how COVID-19 reacts to heat and humidity such as Florida weather provides.
“I need an understanding so I can get a decent idea of how to direct the county,” Biles said. “I’m seeing a wide range of possibilities that could play out from its more deadly than the flu to half the county is infected and we’ve overrun the hospitals.”
Biles said having observed how other areas have handled the spread of the illness, he is “comfortable” where Pasco County has positioned itself.
“We are trying to remind the people who live, work and play here to follow the guidelines about how to be safe like washing your hands, but at the same time not requiring some things that could be considered too draconian. It’s more of an encouraging and recommending that people do things, and not necessarily hard and fast requirements.”
Americans, Biles said, “like their independent streak.”
“I would much rather request things and have people do the right thing that way than end up with an order somebody is going to have to enforce,” he said. “You end with some bad actions.”
Biles said the county had been preparing over the last few weeks how government services and employees would function as the threat began to grow.
“We wanted to know how we could get people to work at home if they need to, if they might find themselves in a quarantine situation,” he said. “It just makes sense to have less people in the office.”
However, Biles noted that option would not work for three-fourths of the county government’s workforce.
“You can’t repair a water main or fix a road from home,” he said. “You can’t drive a rescue unit from home. You can’t answer a 911 dispatch from home. They have to be in, so the question becomes how do we make their work areas and work stations as safe as possible.”
Trying times like these are why Pasco employees “work for the county.”
“It’s our job to go out into the community and provide what they need,” he said. “I remind my team there are no nonessential employees who work for Pasco County and we need them to be able to function. We are doing the things to keep our employees safe while still providing the services that are needed out there every day.”
Biles said in general the public is “doing what they are supposed to do.”
“It’s what we do as Americans,” he said. “You buckle down and pull through it – that includes maybe shopping for that elderly neighbor or ordering take out to help our local restaurants. We see a lot of that going on.”
But, he admits to having some “minor issues” with crowds in the county’s parks.
“We’re trying to tell them they can come and enjoy the park, but to maintain their distances,” he said.
Biles said the idea to close the beaches was a little difficult for some to understand, “but we’re going to have groups on beaches and we don’t have full-time parks employees there.”
“Do I put them in jail that are crowding up? The state isn’t taking the state inmates out of our jail right now,” he said. “So, the question becomes how can we enforce those things.”
He added: “We made the decision to close them recognizing it might not be the most popular thing, but we thought we were having crowds that were going to be hard to control. We didn’t want that to continue.”
Biles said one of the most difficult discussions was concerning what to do about the library system.
“At the end of that, the safest thing was to close them because people are gathering there and they shouldn’t be,” he said. “We can still maintain services electronically. I even asked if we knew how to disinfect books. We don’t know yet.”
Biles said he is not struggling with a “stay at home order.”
“I think what we are doing right here in Pasco County is the right thing to do,” he said. “It may not be the right thing to do in dense urban areas, but we’re not a dense urban area. So, that decision seems reasonably clear to me until somebody can show me some data that would drive a different decision.”
Biles said while the situation is serious, he doesn’t personally share many of the worries that have come to the forefront.
“Based on what I have seen, knowing where Pasco County is and the quality of the health system, I don’t really get that worried.”
He said none in his family have any of the conditions that the virus can amplify, but his father-in-law lives in Washington State which is one of the nation’s hotbeds for coronavirus cases.
“We got on to him for running around town with his wife. He’s over 70-years-old. We told him to get home,” Biles said. “He replied by saying he had things to do.”
“There are risks involved with anything we do,” he said. “We make a risk/reward evaluation and decide what to do. So, I spend most of my time at home looking at data from around the world and decide what that’s going to mean for Pasco and what do we need to do to get ready for it.”
He said the people of Pasco County are “as postured as good as we can be.”
“I think we are about where we should be and I’m hoping in the next week or so we get past the worst,” Biles said. “That’s the optimist in me, but we’re prepared if it gets a lot worse.”