TARPON SPRINGS — The City Commission held its March 24 meeting under highly irregular circumstances. The restrictions commissioners put in place to combat the coronavirus pandemic were plainly evident to the few who people attended the meeting.
Temperature taking stations inside City Hall, taped off areas where no one was allowed to enter and wide spacing between officials, on the commission dais and off, made for a surreal scene as the city dealt with the effects of the COVID-19 crisis.
During the meeting, commissioners made several important pandemic-related decisions, including extending an executive order calling for a state of emergency in the city and the cancellation of all special events through the month of April and into May.
“We need to ratify this executive order to ratify the state of emergency that was declared by Mark LeCouris on March 17,” Mayor Chris Alahouzos said, referring to the city manager. “The executive order is designed to allow our city staff to continue to have a safe and efficient operation and to better serve the public during this difficult time.”
Under the terms of Resolution 2020-12, the city is allowed to waive certain procedures and formalities, including performance of public work, entering into contracts, utilization of volunteer workers, acquisition and distribution of materials and facilities and the appropriation and expenditure of public funds.
According to City Attorney Tom Trask, the move is necessary for the city to be eligible for and federal and state reimbursements for financial losses the city incurs during the crisis.
“We want to do it so you stay in good stead for the ability to get those monies,” Trask said.
While the order was quickly approved by a 4-0 vote, with Commissioner Rea Sieber absent, the decision to cancel upcoming special events was not as easily reached.
With the Chamber of Commerce’s annual Fine Arts Festival, the Tarpon Springs Merchants Association’s First Friday in April and other events already casualties of the coronavirus, the City Commission elected to postpone upcoming events in accordance with the federal Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines against staging public gatherings for a period of at least eight weeks.
“My recommendation is to keep that in effect and postpone them through your meeting on May 12,” LeCouris said of the community events, which include the First Friday for May, Cinco de Mayo Athens as well as the merchants association’s next Wine Walk, scheduled for May 10. “We need to let the people know who are scheduling these events … because I see no way these major events are going to be happening.”
The Rev. Athanasios Haros, dean of St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral, asked commissioners about 2020 Easter activities. Eastern Orthodox churches will celebrate Easter on April 19, one week after Easter is marked in Western Christianity.
In response, the commission elected to take a wait-and-see approach to the festivities, which include services at the cathedral, as well as a public procession through downtown.
“Obviously, unlike the Wine Walk, we can’t reschedule Easter,” Haros told the commission, noting the cathedral is closed to parishioners and all non-essential personnel. “And so my request would be at this time allow us the opportunity if, by God’s good grace, things get better and we can progress with Holy Friday that we find some way … to do our procession.”
After some discussion, commissioners elected to make a definitive decision on the Easter activities during its April 14 meeting. LeCouris warned them not to count on the event taking place.
“You’re not going to see a procession of people on the street April 19, 19 and 20” based on the current CDC guidelines, he said. “You’re not going to see it. It’s not going to happen.”
Another item that needed to be resolved was the swearing in ceremony for the two commissioners voted into office on Election Day, Costa Vatikiotis and Jacob Karr.
While the event is typically a joyous affair with a large audience Karr, an incumbent who withstood a stiff challenge from newcomer Susan Hales on March 17, proposed hosting a small, private gathering in the clerk’s office in light of the current events.
“To me it’s an easy decision,” Karr said. “We just cancelled our special events for the next eight weeks, this is a special event we’re having as a commission and I don’t think we should have it.”
Commissioner-elect Vatikiotis agreed.
Alahouzos also recommended three city advisory boards — Planning and Zoning, Historical Preservation and the Board of Adjustments — meetings continue as planned, utilizing proper protocols.
After the meeting, the mayor spoke about how his city is dealing with the coronavirus crisis.
Alahouzos noted the commission would consider using a portion of the $8.8 million in city unassigned funds to aid local businesses hurt by the pandemic-related closings, if necessary. “It’s too early to look at that now, but if we need to do it, I’m for it.”