Reopenings see Hernando COVID-19 cases rising faster

Public worship is among the services now open to Hernando County residents, but the Church of Brooksville is offering an alternative for those still worried about gathering during the COVID-19 pandemic — drive-thru prayer service.

We’re a couple of weeks into Phase 2 of the state’s reopening plan, and Hernando County COVID-19 cases are up.

That’s not surprising, as more people are circulating and coming into contact with others than during the strict closures and lockdowns. The state’s COVID-19 Data Dashboard at FloridaHealthCovid19.gov has the tale of the tape on the local spread of the virus.

About this time last month, Hernando had recorded 100 positive cases. On June 16, that number was 140. The new total is relatively low compared with most Florida counties of similar size. Still, the chart of new cases is climbing, not falling, which means Hernando residents have to remain vigilant to reduce spreading the virus, said Ashley Thomas, a state Health Department Health Education Program consultant and public information officer based at the Hernando Health Department.

The takeaway should be that being free to roam shouldn’t be taken as an indication that risks are lower than during the lockdowns.

“It is important to continue to: wash your hands frequently; stay home when you're sick; maintain social distancing of at least 6 feet from others when you are out; and wear a facial covering.

“These practices will help reduce or lower the spread of COVID-19,” said Thomas.

The numbers show she is on target with that advice.

The Health Department’s Data Dashboard shows that the week of May 18-25, Hernando saw just six new COVID-19 cases. The week of June 6-15 saw 15 new cases. Hernando deaths from the disease as of June 16 remained at five, where it has been for several weeks. Hospitalizations as of June 16 were at 28, up by three from recent weeks.

The data shows the median age of those infected in the county is 54. Males accounted for a total of 73 cases, while 67 females contracted the virus.

Hernando County began reopening following the state’s Phase 1 guidelines on May 4. On May 8, Hernando County officials allowed the local state of emergency to expire and the process of returning to normalcy was underway.

Parks had already reopened, and non-essential stores followed. County government offices began one by one to unlock their doors.

By the start of June, Phase 2 of the reopening plan was implemented statewide, with the exception of the three counties with the highest numbers of COVID-19 cases. Hernando restaurants opened (with 50 percent seating capacity indoors). Bars reopened with the same restrictions and the addition of a no-barstools rule. Movie theaters, concert venues, arcades and other entertainment outlets were permitted to reopen at 50 percent capacity. Salons and parlors got the green light proving masks are worn.

No one should be surprised that loosening restrictions and letting thousands of Hernando County residents be out and about is producing a spike in cases. The question, which only time will tell, is where the spike will top out.

Thomas previously said Hernando’s relatively low infection rate is due to residents cooperating and practicing safety, but as many in Florida have noted, large groups of people gathering at beach parties and protest marches are a big concern during a pandemic.

Hernando has been spared the huge gatherings to this point, but in the event of more serious cases of COVID-19 erupting, the county is ready, said Thomas, and has resources it can tap into if needed.

“At this time, Hernando County has the appropriate and necessary resources for the current demand,” she said. “Should the need arise for additional support, we will reassess and communicate with our local and state partners.”

Thomas also said testing for Hernando residents is available. The tests are taken at the Department of Health in Spring Hill by appointment. Call 352-540-6800.